four minutes dead

They are frantic. Hurrying about like bees in a hive. Seemingly chaotic, undirected, helpless. In fact; they know what they’re doing and have been trained to do it. I move back as one of them, a stout nurse, rushes past and calls loudly.

“Crash trolley!”

I go unnoticed in all the commotion. My feet are rooted to the spot and I am staring. I don’t feel able to assist. This isn’t my ward and each has a team that functions well together. We all have uniforms. We play our parts and know our place. The reason for my presence here… Well, I forget. It doesn’t matter. Several others enter hurriedly, including a registrar and a senior nurse.

“No pulse.”

“Start chest compressions!”

I move to pull back the covers but the nurse next to me throws them towards his feet and begins to pump his heart. I step back to give her room and prepare to take over when she tires. She is young and slender with dark brown hair tied back into a loose ponytail. I glance beyond her and observe the recipient of all this commotion. It was a young man who, from the look of things, was hit by a moving vehicle. His dark hair is flat against his scalp, stained red and askew. He looks about my age.

“One minute!” the senior nurse calls out, a memorable voice that accuses her of smoking forty a day. It has been one minute since his heart abdicated responsibility for preserving his life. The distinct stench of sweat that comes from a body in distress blended with the fresh yet odorous scent of the nurse’s exertion, usually accentuates the stress and adrenaline surge. Yet, it forms a distant cloud that hovers over me and I am suddenly acutely aware of my steady heart rate, my sense of calm. I guess I’ve been here before, many times. But I’m never so… impenetrable.

“Excuse me madam, I’m sorry, but it’s probably best if you wait just outside.” The senior nurse has just swept past me and is ushering a woman from the room. The woman takes one last glance back.

The action blurs and all I can see is her. Faye. The memory of her faintly flushed cheeks, the wisps of blonde across her forehead, her guarded yet lively green eyes. All at once I instruct my feet to follow, then stay put. My indecision keeps me rooted to the spot. I turn to look at the patient as they prepare to shock his heart. She must be a family member, or a friend perhaps. Was this her brother?

I should be frantic too. I am standing here doing nothing. Nothing for Faye, nothing for the patient. A peace has swamped my mind leaving no room for concern. I guess that makes me quietly confident in my colleagues. Or naive. Or something else entirely.

***

“I just visited someone.” She said.

“Boyfriend?” She looked at him sharply, surprised by his candour.

“Er, no. I don’t. I mean, I wasn’t visiting one.” She flushed, an uncontrollable physical response she had always resented. He smiled a grin that was strikingly attractive but had a subtle edge of satisfaction from having rattled her.

“There you go.” He passed her the change for her five-pound note. The inevitable grazing of their hands caused an unwelcome flutter in her stomach. He turned away slightly to use the vending machine. She considered just walking away but decided it would look foolish since she had just acquired change from him to use that same damn machine.

“Thank you. I see you work here?” She ventured.

“Yeah, I’m a nurse, just on my lunch break actually.”

“But it’s 3:30! Do you always have lunch so late?”

“Yeah most days. It’s always busy and visiting hours can be a good time to duck out.” He smiled a rather devastating smile, his eyes were green, similar to hers. This is ridiculous, she thought, I need to go.

“It’s your turn.” Said a gruff voice behind her and she felt her cheeks heat up like radiators. She stepped forward and was about to push her coin into the slot when he placed his hand on hers. She turned to him, unable to check her shocked expression.

“I thought maybe you might prefer something from the café? Can I buy you a coffee?”

The gruff voice exhaled loudly and she could feel her pulse in her ears. She had never had a drink with a man after so brief an exchange. She didn’t have time to fully reflect on the likelihood of him being a stalker or mentally unhinged as she was holding up the queue. Yes, she was disturbingly attracted to him and found his job somewhat fascinating, but what persuaded her was the fact that rejecting this stranger in front of an audience would be plain embarrassing. She looked up at him and noted he didn’t look at all self-conscious, as he held her gaze a smile tugged at his lips. He was silently goading her, expecting her to refuse.

“Oh, yes, alright. I think I’ve only got another 45 minutes on my car though.”

“OK sure.” He abruptly turned and started walking.

She was pleased to have thought of an excuse to leave before they’d even sat down and walked briskly after him with her chin up, avoiding the eyes staring after. She continued to walk confidently as she delved into her coat pocket and found one of the pound coins he had just given her.

The pastel yellow corridor was stark, wide and empty. Yet she felt as though they were walking through a narrow tunnel with its ceiling reaching down to touch her. It dawned on her that she was going to have to stay in this wretched hospital even longer than planned. She turned the coin 360 degrees, three times, and felt some relief.

“You know, the selection in the cafe isn’t much better than that vending machine to be honest. Unless you like shepherd’s pie with a skin or beef casserole that takes about an hour to chew.” His smile and easy manner helped her relax. It was just a coffee. She was safe and had no obligations. Why can’t she enjoy a conversation? And, perhaps, an opportunity. She shook the thought away like an irksome bug.

“I’m not sure why I invited you to join me here,” he continued, as they walked through the double doors and into the cafeteria. He stopped and turned to her. She had walked slightly ahead when she realised and, confused, slowly closed the gap, looking side-to-side hoping she wouldn’t invite another audience.

“Inviting you for coffee just sort of, slipped out, I honestly don’t do this a lot. This morning we lost a patient and I’m always left with that…” He looked for the words. His furrowed brow was endearing.

Carpe diem… feeling. I guess I do things I want to do and say things I want to say, without much thought. I know people were watching and maybe you felt obligated, or something. You don’t need to, we can part here and it’s not a problem.” He shrugged and looked genuinely at ease as he spoke; no fear or self-consciousness. He hadn’t been goading her he just wasn’t afraid of rejection. She was both impressed and intimidated by this realisation.

“No, there’s no harm in a coffee, is there? No pressure. I’m glad you asked.” She shrugged and forced a smile. She was too stubborn to back down now anyway.

“Great!” He flung that smile at her again like a frisbee flying straight into her stomach. They ordered and sat at the last available table near a window. He placed the tray down and set the coffee and scone in front of her. It was just like any other hospital canteen with that heavy smell of gravy and hum of chatter and clattering cutlery.

“You made a good choice, those are not made on the premises.”

She laughed and picked up her knife. When she looked up he was still looking at her and she tried to remember what she’d done with her hair. She’d washed it at least. It was tied up and the cursory blonde strands hung loose against her pale cheeks. She automatically tucked them behind her ears.

“What’s your name?” He asked.

“Faye. Yours?”

“Jake.”

“What ward do you work on?” She asked.

“Respiratory.”

“Right.”

“What do you do?” He took a bite out of his sandwich.

“I’m a partner in an accountancy firm.” Faye knew it was intimidating and wondered why she didn’t soften it. She broke eye contact to look down at the scone she was buttering.

“Sounds stressful!” Jake exclaimed without even the slightest show of concern. She looked at him, unable to dim her fascination. He always looked back at her, straight in the eyes. She could see it was his natural way and not a skill he’d mastered. His hair was dark and unkempt in an appealing way. He had dimples when he smiled that added to his youthful energy.

“Said the man who saw someone pass away today.” Faye said.

“Well, sometimes that’s stressful, sometimes it’s peaceful. I suppose every job has its challenges. But at least I don’t have the degree of responsibility that you do. You know, for a business, for employees.”

Faye thought of the staff member she’d fired two days ago. His expression had changed from crestfallen to livid in seconds, like a chameleon transforms as it travels its multicolour landscape. She remembered the tears she’d shed in her office afterwards. Some things never got easier, though she always managed to hide it. In fact, to her colleagues, she couldn’t care less.

“It is stressful actually. If I wasn’t blonde I’d probably have many obvious greys.”

He nodded and continued eating.

“I couldn’t imagine dealing with life and death, day-in-day-out. It feels easier in an office to shut down emotions.” She said. He looked at her for a long moment. Then tugged at his deep magenta uniform.

“When we put these on, we become something else. Nurse Jake. Professional.” He put on a superhero narrator voice.

“Is that so? Pink suits you by the way.”

He grinned.

“I like to think so.” He glanced over her shoulder then leaned closer and lightly touched the back of her hand. Her pulse thudded.

“See that doctor sitting over there?” She subtly turned to look and her gaze landed on a middle-aged man with receding grey hair. A shirt and tie lay neatly pressed under his white coat and his small eyes looked serious behind his frameless glasses.

“He has the worst bedside manner I’ve ever seen. But at the Christmas party he got completely plastered and started crying on a rather big-bosomed senior nurse. He’s getting divorced apparently. He comes into work the next day, cold and serious as ever.”

“Strange.” Faye mused, though feeling slightly uncomfortable.

“This morning, I’m not ashamed to say, I shed a tear and…” He leant forward again.

I didn’t hide it.” He winked and she realised she was leaning in towards him. He was magnetic.

When they had finished eating they continued conversing easily and time did that mysterious thing where it seems to pass like a speeding train. It was refreshing to talk candidly, about their jobs and the town in which they lived. Faye wasn’t trying to impress, for once, and it seemed Jake never was.

The silent moments felt comfortable, unlike other encounters she’d had; she’d always had a way of making men feel uneasy. She was successful but also business-like and cold and not just in the workplace. No one seemed to discern the true Faye, hiding behind this flimsy cardboard cut-out of a strong and uncaring woman. She was strong, but she was also afraid. She realised she’d felt completely and utterly at ease for most of the time she’d been in Jake’s company. It was rare, and the thought made her tired.

Then it hit her, crept up on her just when she thought it had taken a short vacation. Her heart started to beat harder, her stomach squirmed, and fear surged up from the deep place it was always lurking; awaiting an opportunity to strangle. She never knew why it came, but she knew what to do. Faye rapped the wooden table three times and felt it subside. Though it would come again, that she was sure of.

***

Jake noticed Faye’s knuckles tap the table. So subtle he doubted himself. He’d noticed it so easily because she had barely moved for most of their encounter. She sat, stock still, with the posture of a dancer. She was beautiful, no doubt about that. Everything about her portrayed confidence and control. But what lurked behind that exterior?

He had noticed her start to relax; her elbows resting on the table and she had leant towards him smiling easily. But all of a sudden she went rigid again and seemed edgy.

For a moment he wondered if he’d made a mistake. After all, he didn’t know anything about her. She could have serious problems and latch onto him.

He studied her as she gazed around the room. He was drawn to her. He couldn’t shake the feeling from when she first looked at him by the vending machine. Warmth had flooded her cheeks and her true vulnerability struck him in the gut. Her sharp expression, confidence and tidy appearance wasn’t all there was. Besides, he’d always been a sucker for a challenge.

“Do you have a big family?” He ventured.

Faye shook her head.

“I have one brother, younger. He’s not married.” She knocked at the wood again barely perceptible but he was sure that time. He looked at her and realised he must have been staring at her hand. Anxiety swept across her tidy features before she fixed a steely expression and looked him in the eyes.

“You worry about him?” Jake asked. He wanted her to know he’d noticed.

She took a deep breath and looked out at the courtyard below. There were large metal sculptures of penguins that had bright woolly hats on that had been knitted by a local charity. It struck him how bizarre a scene that truly was but it felt like a suitable backdrop to this unexpected lunch break.

“I just visited him. He’s not well. But, I don’t worry about him any more than I worry about anything else.” She took another breath and closed her eyes. “Everything else.”

“You think you can ward off… bad luck? Bad things happening?” He was aware this was delicate. She looked straight at him again, as if to make a show of strength. He could almost see the internal battle that was occurring between her desire to maintain her strong demeanour and the temptation to be real.

“You’re not afraid of anything, are you?” She said. He was startled by the question, then smiled and blew out a breath.

“Not much.”

“Why? I mean… How?” She couldn’t help but gape at him. He looked out of the window and seemed to be trying to figure it out himself.

“Well, whilst working here I’ve seen a lot of people pass away. It’s partly to do with the cliché that life is short, but not just that. All people want at the end is those they love around them.” He paused and watched a member of the canteen staff clear a table nearby.

The thing is, I do feel fear but I don’t want to let it stop me put myself out there. Having real relationships means being real. And you know, the ones who don’t die get better. They come out the other side more appreciative and ready to live life to the full. I don’t want to be afraid of pain because it will hold me back but also because if it passes, and even if it doesn’t, good can come from it.” He looked back to her and said gently.

There’s a purpose to everything Faye. I’ve seen it.”

Faye looked down at her half-eaten scone with tears pooling in her eyes. He made it all sound simple. Too simple.

“Takes practise, Faye. I didn’t just wake up one day completely unafraid to be myself.” When she didn’t look up he added:

Cheese.” As he knew it would, her head snapped up.

“What?”

“I’m afraid of cheese.” She rolled her eyes and a smile crept its way across her mouth.

“No you’re not.”

“Ok, I’m not. But I heard someone say it over the radio the other day. I couldn’t believe it! Do people actually have nightmares about stilton?” She laughed freely and he waited and hoped she wouldn’t take the diversion he’d offered.

“I never used to be superstitious or, if you want the diagnosis, I’ve not always had OCD.” She continued quickly as if giving her confession.

I picked up the touch-wood thing from my Mum who used to say it. My Dad died when I was a teenager, an accident.” She cast her eyes back to the penguins.

It was just a habit I think when Mum said it. I never felt aware of it being truly meaningful to her. But I started to say it myself. After Dad’s death fear and anxiety dominated my life. I don’t think I worked through my grief properly. I started to link my OCD habits to leaps ahead in my career and the ongoing well-being of my Mum and brother. So it stuck. But now he’s not well.”

She frowned and looked utterly confused. The nurse in Jake wanted to get her a cup of tea and say something soothing but he didn’t think she was the type to appreciate that. So he said nothing.

“Well, that’s that.” She suddenly looked up and smiled. She looked straight at him and he knew the moment of vulnerability was over.

“Look at the time! I need to go. You need to get back. It was nice to meet you, Jake.” She said, throwing him a polite smile and before Jake could respond she stood up briskly. She’d put her guard back up so swiftly. For a moment he was too stunned by her abrupt departure that he just stared after her.

She was walking away and in that instant he experienced a jolt of fear that surged through his belly. If he let her go he wouldn’t see her again. But if he went after her she might push him away.

“Faye!” He tried not to shout but she had already reached the double doors in what felt like a couple of seconds. Jake received a stern glance as he half-walked half-ran past an elderly lady, brushing her shoulder as he twisted to avoid mowing her down.

Out in the corridor, Jake caught up with Faye and placed a hand on her shoulder. She turned. Her features were weary and sad.

“Faye, I want to see you again. Don’t disappear on me.” He didn’t intend to sound desperate. He wasn’t sure how to recover so said nothing and confidently looked into her green eyes.

Faye looked down to the floor with fear etched across her pretty face.

“I’m not sure why I told you all that and then I panicked. I’m sorry. I must seem even more crazy now.” Faye said, utterly dejected.

“I’m not afraid of your problems. I’m not afraid of fear. Life is scary and somehow we have to survive it.” Jake halted and waited for her response. He saw her eyes glisten and she smiled, hesitantly.

“Let’s get together again, get to know each other. I haven’t enjoyed spending time with anyone as much as I did with you, in a long time. Also, you’re probably the only woman who thinks I look good in pink.” Pure intrigue flashed in her eyes. He knew his bravery inexplicably dissolved her lack thereof and she wanted more.

On impulse Jake leaned in and pressed his lips to her cheek. He lingered, stalling, so he could plan an explanation. He was just inwardly cursing himself for going too far when he felt her head turn as if to offer an alternative destination. He responded, softly kissing her lips.

Jake’s chest felt like it would erupt and even his toes were tingling. The kiss depicted everything he knew of her; confident, yet gentle and vulnerable. He trailed his fingers down her cheek as the kiss deepened.

He felt like he was observing someone else’s wild story. He was fearless but not reckless and this was intensely unexpected. She was still so strange, so unknown. Jake drew back and looked into her face. She stared back but this time, he felt as if he could see into her soul. There was warmth and longing.

Awareness returned as he noted people passing them, staring. It felt real again. His story. Outside all rational explanation it felt right, how he wanted it to be; with her there.

***

Jake wanted to walk Faye to her car, which was parked across the main road that passed the hospital front.

“Meet me after work?” He asked, as they crossed the car park.

“Okay.” She felt shy all of a sudden, aware of her child-like glee that she couldn’t contain and barely recognised. He ran his fingers through his dark hair and also couldn’t seem to reign in his delighted smile.

Jake stepped into the road. The lights were blazing and siren sounding. They had been deaf to it but now it filled her ears as he turned towards it.

Faye screamed; Jake’s body hit the road.

***

“Four minutes.” She calls.

“One more time.”

“Clear!”

They shock him again. I look out into the corridor. Faye looks calm though tears leave a shiny trail down her cheeks. Her hands rest on the window; open, waiting. She feels no fear and I wonder why. I expect she is wondering that too.

I want to tell her it’s okay, it will all be okay. I remember the vending machine, the canteen, our intention to meet again. That kiss. It feels like a dream I long to relive. I remember I was walking her to her car and we were walking towards a future, maybe. Then I stepped into the road…

***

Darkness; peaceful and still.

Then the ward, the nurses, the patient…

***

“We have a pulse.” A machine beeps.  Steady and sure.

My eyes are closed but it’s light and I hear her voice. My head feels as though it’s in a vice. A sharp pain pulses on one side. I begin to locate other points of pain and a deep, intense ache in my thigh and I wince. I recognise the sterile smell of the ward and the sounds of trolley wheels on laminate floors.

“Jake, Jake, can you hear me? Oh thank God.” Faye’s voice cracks with emotion. I am lying down and the glaring lights of the ward cause my eyelids to flutter. When they finally open I see Faye and the young nurse, smiling at the side of the bed.

“You gave us a fright, Jake. We almost lost you.” The gravelly voice of the senior nurse rings out from across the ward.

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