Lockdown Learning - Creative Writing

Snow shoe by Monica Callan

Do you ever have that moment when you’re driving along in automatic pilot and see something that doesn’t belong, such as a flip-flop lying in thick snow? So you slow down as you wonder how it got there. Who wears flip-flops in winter?  Didn’t they notice when it came off? Were they running and couldn’t stop for it? Was someone chasing them? And your mind, forever linking things, takes you back to your night shift in the casualty ward last weekend and the people who end up there more frequently than most.

Like Mrs Wilson. This time with her broken arm, swollen mouth and missing clumps of hair. As you treated her, you asked how she got these injuries, knowing full well that what she said is the well rehearsed lie that she’s told you before. Like falling down a flight of stairs, walking into doors or slipping on ice. So, the only thing to do is leave out handy leaflets about abuse and women's shelters, because maybe one day she might find courage and leave.

But not then. No, then you watched as she shuffled passed in flip-flops. See, there it is, that connection, that’s where you last seen it. You didn’t heed her footwear because it wasn’t snowing then and some people do wear them at home for comfort. Not her though. She would be wearing flip flops because, well, who can run far in those?

You watched her return to reception where he was waiting with their two children. Two young kids who didn’t swing on the chairs, complain about the boredom, or whine for juice and sweets. They sat in silence, like good children, staring silently straight ahead ignoring the drunks and druggies.

You looked as she painfully bent down and hugged them protectively.  He stood up then and caught you staring. He helped her with her coat, to all the world whispering sweet nothings into her ear, while brushing her hair back from her face like any loving husband. Then guided her along, digging his fingers into the soft flesh of her upper arm just a little too tightly, with the children following. As he passed he smiled sweetly at you because he knew she wouldn’t say a thing and there’s nothing you can do about it. And you, you just stood there desperately trying to keep your anger in check because this job is important to you. So you watched in shameful silence as they left.

Now seeing that flip-flop in the snow you wonder if maybe she was able to run in them. Maybe fast enough to reach that taxi rank up ahead. Perhaps she did have a plan and was just biding her time. So, you latch on to this small symbol of her freedom, even as it disappears from your rear view mirror and you start praying that she did escape and that you won’t be seeing her again, because sometimes, praying is all that you can do.

 

Mountain Music by Mary Darroch

Her mountain was still there, still waiting.

Telling herself, ‘you can do it,’ didn’t sound very different from ‘you can’t do it,’ but her feet

were listening. They could hear the beat: they could hear the difference.

So she put on her old boots and she danced up that mountain.

 

Stifled by Tony Darroch

The carriage was empty. It was hard for her now to recall a time when the train would still be filling with passengers until its doors closed fast on last-minute scramblers. She tried to visualise the stifling choreography of strangers swaying towards each other while looking away, pretending that this other body centimetres away was not actually there.

That seemed a lifetime ago. So much had changed for Margie since those images of people being stretchered out of apartments ceased being half a world away. Within days, she had been re-deployed from the hospital’s clinical research department to the Intensive Care Unit. But all the training in the world could not have prepared her for that first day when three people died on her shift.

Day after day her only focus was on sustaining the lives of patients on ventilators, turning them over with the proning team, tending to their most basic needs, then, hardest of all, making that phone call when the team’s efforts had all been in vain. She remembered in particular the long howling wail of a widow denied the opportunity to say goodbye, and too ill herself to be able to attend the constrained funeral she would have to watch on a borrowed laptop.

Then Margie recalled the poor old soul she had nursed in the Southern General while she was training. She had sat with the woman all night, the curtains around the bed affording some dignity in her last hours. The cancer had ravaged her body, but she still had the spirit to wink, ’Aye a wee tot of whisky is the only medicine I need.’

At least she had not died alone. Margie, holding her now cold hand, noticed how long and elegant her fingers were. She might have been a pianist in another life. But now she had left this life, with no-one needing to be called.

And now it was happening again. Patients breathing their last with nobody but a well-meaning nurse for company. All Margie wanted to do was go home and cry, and talk, but she knew she would get little of what she needed from Willie, sealed up in his seething anger. Margie would try to distract Willie from the daily briefings, but he seemed to need to shout at the screen. Hospitals are a breeding ground for this…You are putting the staff in harm’s way…..In the front line without protection!

She could no longer confide in him either. She had managed to stop Willie contacting a journalist when the trust imposed a ban on the publication of critical care capacity figures, but she would not risk it again. She would not tell him about patients being selected for treatment on the basis of age, frailty and underlying conditions, and being informed of these life-or-death decisions without their families being present. When Margie learned that fewer than 10 per cent of patients who had died had been given access to intensive care, she wondered what her own chances would be if she ever caught it. She did not have to wait long to find out.

*** 

Masked faces leaned over her in the clinical gleam. Something was covering her own mouth and nose, but she could not raise her arm to feel. A memory suddenly came to her of the blackened mask keeping out the cold yellow air as she peched home almost blindly from primary school.

When Willie took the call from the hospital he knew it must be her voice, repeating her pet name for him. He hoped his own voice sounded strong as he made those desperately-excavated promises down the line. His final depiction, of the guard of honour clapping her along the hospital corridors towards her waiting family and friends, almost took the breath out of his lungs.

What could he say or do now? He wanted to reach her, without words. He knew what it would mean to her to hear the birds singing in the garden he had been tending in his retirement. And then he was standing under the apple tree, his phone capturing the birdsong which might somehow raise a smile across the miles of gusting sky.

The nurse told him she had smiled. Could he have a video call with Margie next time? We were not at that stage just now. He held his breath, overwhelmed by the need to hold her close, snug against a world now made so cold. And he wept for all that had been left unsaid, and all that had been left unhealed.

His jaw slackening, Willie stared at the screen. He did not want to put down the phone. He did not want a stranger to hear Margie’s last breath.