Karen's head was still in a whirl the next morning as she faced the busy shift ahead. Each step down the long corridor to the ward allowed her to swallow down her worries one by one, until she was caught up in the busy morning. Work gave her no time to dwell on her own troubles. Being swept along with it all was what Karen needed.
She was in the steam-filled bathroom, the single light-bulb struggling to illuminate the room. Florrie Price, plump and middle-aged, dressed in a grey crimplene dress printed with flowers the colour of washed out strawberries, moved from one foot to the other on the spot. Her face was contorted into constant changing shapes as her toothless mouth writhed involuntarily. Her hair was permed into curls which shrivelled even tighter in the steamy atmosphere.
'Come on, I've run the bath, Florrie.' Karen's attempts at being assertive were somewhat undermined by her lack of confidence. 'Get undressed, please.'
Florrie, still shifting her weight from one foot to another, clung tightly to her voluminous knitting bag.
'Don't want to get it wet,' she muttered.
'Just put in on the chair. It won't get wet.'
'It's mine. You're not having it.' Florrie glared at Karen.
'I don't want it Florrie,' Karen said. 'Just put it there while you have your bath. Come on, we won't be more than ten minutes. Your hair really needs a wash.'
Before the stand-off could go any further, the door swung open.
'Come on Florrie, get 'em off!' Marion entered the steamy room with Effie and stood, arms folded, watching the scene before her. She laughed as Florrie scurried to undress.
'See, you have to let 'em know you're in charge.' She sneered at Karen. 'You want to know something?'
'What?' Karen didn't want to know.
'Get in that bath!' Marion shouted at Florrie, then turned back to Karen. 'You won't last five minutes in this job.'
Karen turned back to Florrie who'd climbed in the bath and was sitting with her knees up to her belly, the water lapping over it's vastness. Karen had barely began to soap the flannel before Marion had Effie in the other bath, pouring water over her protesting head.
Karen lifted Florrie's heavy breasts and was washing carefully underneath them when Mike's head appeared at the door.
'What's all the screaming about?' he asked. 'You two alright in here?'
'Course we're alright, aren't we Karen?' laughed Marion. 'Just getting the job done.'
'Yes, we're O.K.,' Karen agreed, wondering whether to try and cover Florrie with a towel, but Mike had already gone.
Marion soon had Effie out of the bath, dried her roughly with one of the small worn towels from the pile on the shelf, and was barking orders at her to get dressed. Karen tried to ignore her and turned back to Florrie.
'Just put this flannel over your eyes while I pour the water over your hair.' She scooped the water with the jug, looked up and noticed that Marion was riffling through Florrie's bag.
'What are you doing?' She was aghast.
Marion laughed and pulled out a battered packet of biscuits, a dirty hairbrush, a plastic compact, a set of false teeth, and a worn and faded Christmas card which was stuffed in the bottom of the bag.
'Just look at all her treasures!' She sneered. 'What a load of old junk! This is disgusting!'
'Stop it,' Karen was horrified. 'Those are Florrie's.' She slammed the jug of warm water down on the shelf beside the window.
Florrie was struggling to get out of the bath. 'Leave my bag alone, you fuckin' whore,' she shouted. 'I'll fuckin' kill you!'
'Just listen to her,' Marion laughed. 'Watch your language, Florrie.'
'It's alright, Florrie,' Karen tried to calm her. 'She's put it back now.'
'Don't suck up to her,' Marion turned on Karen. 'You have to show who's boss around here.'
Ignoring her words, Karen grabbed Florrie's bag.
'It's O.K. I'll put your bag over here by the window,' she reassured Florrie. 'Just let me rinse your hair and you can get out.'
But Florrie was already on her way out of the bath, a tidal wave of water sloshing over the edges and onto the floor.
'Pull the plug out, you stupid...' Marion reached into the bath and wrenched at the plug.
Karen wrestled with Florrie's slippery body, trying to avoid her crashing onto the wet floor, not quite knowing where to hold on to. She eventually managed to help her on to a chair where she sat naked but for a small towel draped across one shoulder, her bag clutched to her breasts as she inspected the contents furtively.
'Don't know what you're making such a fuss about,' Marion said. 'They don't know what's going on half the time. Nothing up there.' She tapped her head.
Karen glared at her, ashamed of herself for saying nothing, unsure of what she could or should say.
'Come on Florrie, let's get you dried.' She squeezed Florrie's shoulder and rubbed her back with the towel.
Helping Florrie pull on her voluminous bloomers, Karen then coaxed her to put on her vest and dress, her own eyes welling with tears. She could feel Marion glaring at the back of her head as she fought back her feelings of frustration, until she heard the door slam again as Marion ushered Effie out.
'I'm so sorry.' Karen was brushing Florrie's hair. She leaned to look at the woman's face. 'Are you alright?'
'It's my bag,' Florrie said. 'My private property.’
'I know. Is everything O.K.?'
Florrie was rummaging into the depths of her bag. She drew out the crumpled, now slightly damp Christmas card, smoothed it carefully on her lap, and was tracing her finger over the words embossed on the front. A robin perched upon a gate in front of a snow covered cottage, the soft glow of firelight behind the windows shining through the open red curtains - a scene typical of any old Christmas card, but obviously meaning more to Florrie.
Karen glanced at the words that Florrie's yellow-stained fingers lovingly stroked. “Happy Christmas Mum.” The words spoke silently to Karen. Was it possible that this woman was someone's mother? Had she once been desired and had she kissed and cuddled and made love, and laughed at the thought that she would soon have a child, a baby of her own? That someone had once held her hand and promised her the world?
The sound of scraping chairs on the floor of the canteen, the cutlery on Pyrex plates and the clatter of dirty dishes thrown together on the trolley by the door all jangled against Karen's nerves. Linda sat in the chair opposite her, leaning towards Andy, whose long hair was hanging loose about his face. Karen was still reeling from the thought of Florrie and her Christmas card, and what had happened to her lost family.
'Oi. Karen!' Linda's voice penetrated Karen's daydreaming. 'Wake up!'
'Oh, sorry.' Karen smiled at the two faces looking at her expectantly.
'We were just saying,' Linda said. 'There's a party in the hostel tonight. You gotta come, it's John's birthday.'
'I don’t know,' Karen said.
'Telephone your husband and get him to come as well,' Linda suggested. 'You'll get to know some nice people.'
'I don't think Peter would want to come,' Karen hesitated.
'Well come without him, then,' Linda insisted. 'You can come to my room and change. I've got loads of clothes that'll fit you. Go on, phone him and tell him that you're having a night out with me.'
Karen was unsure. What would Peter say if she went to a party without him? Then she thought about the fight they'd had the day before. Suddenly she made up her mind.
'Where's the telephone?' She stood up, rummaging in her bag for her purse.
'There's one in the main entrance hall.' Linda's face lit up. 'You coming then?'
'I'll have to phone Peter first.' Karen was moving towards the door. 'Maybe.'
'I'll come with you.' Linda was on her feet. 'See you back at the ward, Andy.'
As they walked down the long corridor to the entrance hall, Karen tried to look more confident than she felt. Nearing the telephone booth, she was beginning to wish that Linda had gone back to the ward with Andy. It would have been easy to say she'd phoned Peter and then make up some story about having to go somewhere else. But a greater part of her argued that she should have some fun in her life. Peter could come to the party if he wanted. She picked up the phone and dialled. Her heart leaped into her throat as his voice forced her to press the button and release the coins.
'Hello Peter. It's Karen.' The phone was slippery in her grip. She noticed that her hands were sweating.
'What is it?' He sounded annoyed. 'Everything alright?'
'I just phoned to ask you if you'd like to come to a party this evening,' she gabbled. 'It's in the nurses home.'
There was a slight pause before he answered.
'In the nurse's home?' he asked. 'I suppose it'll be a load of nurses?'
'Well, yes,' Karen said. 'It's a birthday party. One of my friends. It's his birthday.'
'What do you mean, his?' Peter hissed. 'I thought you said it was a nurse?'
'He's a male nurse. I work with him,' Karen explained. 'Linda will be there. I've talked about her before.'
'Who's this male nurse?'
'His name's John. We work together on the ward.'
'How many male nurses are there then?' he pursued. 'I thought you said it was a women's ward.'
'Yes, it is,' Karen sighed. 'But there are some male staff. I told you about the Charge Nurse, and then there are two students who are men...'
'Look, I've got to go,' he interrupted. 'I can't talk now.'
'Will you come to this party then?' Karen asked.
'I don't think it's really us, is it?' Peter replied.
Karen swallowed. 'I want to go,' she said. 'Linda's going, and I would like to go.'
'Well, I'm not keen.'
'Please...' Karen begged.
'No Karen.' His voiced was raised now. 'It's not going to happen.'
Karen took a deep breath.
'Sorry Peter,' she said. 'But I really want to go and if you don't want to then I think I'll go anyway. Just for a couple of hours. Is that alright?' She wondered where her courage had come from.
'Please yourself,' Peter snapped.
The disconnected line buzzed into Karen's ear. She stood for a moment, looking at the phone.
'Now what have I done?' Immediately regretting her decision, she knew that she'd have to follow it through now, with Linda standing next to her.
'Oh dear,' Linda grimaced. 'Everything alright?'
'Not really,' Karen said. 'But I'm coming to the party.'
'Great!' laughed Linda. 'We'll find you something to wear after the shift.'
'Thanks Linda,' Karen wavered.
'Come on, we'll be late back.' Linda linked her harm in Karen's as they marched back down the corridor once more.
Karen's spirits lifted a notch.
Evelyn sat alone in her room. That new young girl was on duty. She'd heard her calling to that other nurse, Linda.
'I'll stay here, out of the way,' she muttered to herself. 'She won't be here all day.'
The sky outside her window was blue, the clouds tinged with grey. Much better to focus on the sky than listen to the sounds in the corridor. She began to sing. It helped keep out the noise.
A haunting tune floated into the corridor which pierced Karen's heart as she approached the room. 'In Dublin's fair city, where the girl's are so pretty...'. She stopped short of the doorway and listened. A lump formed in her throat as the sound reached deep into a fleeting ghost of a memory which seemed to slip away before it was fully formed. She gently opened the door.
'Evelyn, can you come down for your tablets?'
The singing stopped.
'That was a lovely song.’
Evelyn said nothing.
‘Are you coming?’ Karen sat on the edge of the bed and reached to touch Evelyn’s hand.
Without further warning the older woman swung round and screamed at Karen, forcing her to jump up from the bed.
'It's alright, Evelyn.' Karen tried to stay calm. 'Please.'
But Evelyn kept screaming. Karen was shaking as she backed out of the room.
Linda, Mike and John were already near the door. Karen spun around and collided into John in her panic.
'What the hell is up with her?' Linda was yelling.
'Are you alright?' John asked. Karen nodded, unable to speak.
Mike pushed past Linda into the room and began speaking in soothing tones. The screaming stopped and Evelyn subsided into a low sobbing.
'Come on. You need a cup of tea.' John led Karen towards the office.
Evelyn listened to their footsteps moving away from the door and curled up on her bed, ignoring Mike's voice, droning formlessly.
Eventually he left her but was soon back.
'Take these,' he offered. 'You'll soon feel better.’
She needed no coaxing to tip the medicine cup into her mouth, not caring what was in it. He offered her a glass of water. She took the glass from him and gulped down the contents, feeling the tablets slip down her throat.
Sleep didn't come easily, but she drifted into a dreamlike state, where she saw herself sitting in a small garden amongst cabbages, carrots and redcurrant bushes - a washing line draped with white sheets and voluminous shirts flapping in the breeze, intermittently blocking the sunlight easing the glare of the clean linen from her eyes. Her mother was at the door of the tiny terraced house, calling her in for dinner. She stood holding her belly, her weight uncomfortable as she walked down the path back to the house.
Fear lurched her suddenly awake.
She was in the room again, curled on her bed, safe.