The morning sunlight swept into the quiet of the ward as Karen pulled back the curtains. She laughed out loud at the thought of the news she’d just received.
'The first sign of madness,' Dorothy commented, as she wheeled the trolley from the kitchen, rattling into the relative peace of the day.
'What?' Karen turned. 'Oh, sorry. I've just had a letter about my training. I've been accepted as a student.'
'Well done. Rather you than me though. I'm quite happy just being an assistant.' Dorothy busied herself laying the tables as she talked.
'It's what I need to do.' Karen took a pile of plates from the trolley.
'Yeah, but all that studying,' Dorothy said. 'It's beyond me.'
'Well, I've got to give it a go,' Karen said. 'The only thing is, I'll miss working here.'
'You'll do some time on here during the course, won't you?'
'Six weeks in training school first,' said Karen. 'Then we do twelve weeks on each ward, with two weeks in school between. I don't know what wards I'll work on.' She paused. 'I don't know if I fancy working with old people though.'
'You'll be fine,' Dorothy reassured her. 'It's not much different from working here. Just a bit more of the physical nursing.'
'Yeah, a lot of washing dirty backsides, I heard.' Karen grimaced.
'Shit shovelling! And feeding. All those soft diets,' Dorothy said. 'But they're not all like that. You can have a lot of fun. I quite liked it.' She leaned on the trolley as she reminisced.
'Really?' Karen wasn't so sure.
'I enjoyed it on Beech ward,' Dorothy went on. 'You can get very fond of some of the patients you know. Although I admit it's hard work and some of them can be right bitches. And then if you work on a male ward it can be very hard. They're stronger than the women, and most of them are taller than you so you have more of a job to get out of the way of their fists.'
'I don't suppose they can help it.' Karen tried to look on the bright side. ‘They wouldn't be in here if they were alright and could look after themselves, would they?'
'I suppose not. Anyway, we'd better get started on our lot or we'll never get done this morning.' Dorothy walked away towards the bedrooms.
Karen followed her and between them they soon had most of the bedroom doors open wide, calling each of the ladies in turn to get themselves up and dressed ready for breakfast.
'Of course,' Dorothy called to Karen, 'not many of those old patients can dress themselves and you have to wash them all before they come down for breakfast. This ward's a doddle compared to Gerries.'
'I only have to do twelve weeks on geriatrics though. I should cope with that.' Karen swallowed down any feelings of trepidation. She smiled to herself as she made the beds in the dormitory, pushing open the windows as far as she could to allow the summer air into the room.
A woman’s screams suddenly cut through the tranquility.
'Evelyn!' The thought hit her like a reflex as she hurried along the gallery. Evelyn’s door was already open and as she reached it, Karen saw Mike and Dorothy inside.
'What's happened?' Karen asked. 'Is she hurt? Was it Gloria again?'
'I don't know,' Mike replied. 'She just started screaming. Gloria's in the dining room with Linda and Andy. It wasn't her this time.'
Evelyn was lying on the bed, curled in her usual foetal position, sobbing loudly.
'I'll get something to calm her,' Mike told the others. 'You two stay here until I get back.'
Dorothy sat on the edge of the bed and placed her hand on Evelyn's shoulder. Karen held her breath but Evelyn’s sobbing gradually became quieter.
'What is it, Evelyn?' Dorothy asked.
'She won't tell you.' Karen said.
'Evelyn?' Dorothy repeated. 'It's alright. You're safe here. It's Dorothy and Karen. We've been looking after you, remember? Mike's getting you something to help you calm down. Alright?'
Evelyn turned her head a fraction. Her eyes held Karen’s, eventually softening as she relaxed.
'She'll be alright now,' said Dorothy.
'Yes, I think you're right,' Karen smiled.
Mike was back with a small medicine glass filled with a syrupy liquid.
'Here you are Evelyn, take this.' He offered the glass to her lips. She struggled to sit up and took it from his hand. Looking from the glass to Karen and then to Mike, she drank down the substance in one swallow.
'Good girl.' Mike took the glass from her hand. 'One of you stay with her for a bit, won't you? Just until she sleeps.'
'I'll stay,' Karen offered.
'Leave the door open,' Dorothy said to Karen as she went. 'Just shout if you need me.'
Left alone with Evelyn, Karen sat tentatively on the chair beside the bed. She looked around the room. There were no pictures, no personal touches at all. She looked at Evelyn lying on the bed. Her eyes were closed. Karen noticed the clear unlined skin of her face and thought about how young she seemed.
'You've had no life really,' she whispered without realising that she had spoken out loud. 'What a waste of so many years.'
Something tucked under the pillow caught her eye. A flash of colour in contrast to the white hospital linen. Karen gently took hold of it. The end of a length of pink wool was just showing and as Karen lifted the pillow, she could see that it had been tightly wound into a small ball.
Evelyn opened her eyes. She looked alarmed at seeing how near to her Karen was but said nothing.
'This pink wool. It's beautiful,’ Karen said.
Evelyn snatched at it. Holding it close to her she glared at Karen.
'My baby,' she said so quietly that Karen though she had imagined it.
'I think she was talking about her baby,' Karen said to Mike in the office later that morning. 'Her first words to me since I've been here.'
Mike looked up from his notes.
'Really? I can't say that she's ever been known to talk about that before. What did she say,' he asked.
'Well, nothing really,' replied Karen. 'She just said “my baby”. I know it's not much, but it was the way she said it.'
'You should spend more time with her,' Mike suggested. 'Build up a relationship.'
'Evelyn needs to start getting out of her room, even getting off the ward - just into the grounds at first. It's been difficult for anyone to have a working relationship with her.' He paused. 'You seem to have connected with her somehow in a way no-one has before.'
'But she always freaks out when she sees me,' Karen protested. 'Today's the first time she hasn't reacted by screaming at me.'
'That could be because you've touched something in her. Maybe you remind her of someone from her past. I don't know exactly who or why but this could possibly be the breakthrough we need to help her get better.'
'I don't know how you can work that out from just one small incident,' Karen argued.
'You've shown an interest in her, haven't you?' Mike asked.
'Yes but I didn't think I was getting anywhere with her.’ She paused. ‘She makes me think of my own Mum. I wonder all the time what happened to her.'
'Don't you see your Mum, then?' Mike asked.
'I've never met her,' Karen replied. 'She dumped me at birth, and I've never even known who she was.'
'Oh, it's a long time ago.' Karen shrugged.
'If you want to talk about it...,' Mike offered.
'Thanks, but I'm alright really.' She paused. 'I'll spend some time talking to Evelyn then.'
'Take her for a short walk in the garden. John can come with you.' Mike turned back to his work. 'Just keep it low key at first, and see how you get on.'
'Get your jacket on Evelyn, and we'll go out into the garden.' Karen pulled opened the door of the small wardrobe. The solitary hanger rattled against the wood as Karen took out the old fashioned coat and held it up for Evelyn. The empty wardrobe was a shock to Karen - a testimonial to Evelyn's life.
Evelyn sat on the edge of the bed, looking at Karen.
'Come on, it's lovely outside,’ Karen coaxed. ‘A bit of fresh air will do you the world of good.'
Evelyn stared at her.
Karen felt her confidence slipping away as she stood holding the coat like some matador teasing a bull. She put it down, feeling slightly ridiculous, and sat on the bed next to Evelyn.
'I'm sorry. You don't have to go out. I just thought it would be nice for you, that's all.'
They sat in silence for a few moments. Karen wondered what else she could say.
'Never mind,' she finally said. 'Maybe you'd like to go out another time.'
She stood up and was hanging Evelyn's coat back on the hanger when John appeared at the door.
'What's going on then?' He grinned. 'Are you two coming outside for a bit?'
'I don't think Evelyn wants to.’
'I'll come.' Evelyn stood up.
Karen and John glanced at each other. Before she could change her mind, Karen helped Evelyn into her coat. John found a battered pair of plimsolls in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe. He blew the dust from them and placed them on the floor beside the bed.
'Best get these on,' he said, glancing at Karen again with a slight lift of an eyebrow.
Karen breathed a sigh of relief as they walked towards the garden door with Evelyn between them. They passed down the narrow dark staircase. Karen could see the light at the end of the stairwell. The outside door was propped open leading to the garden - small and enclosed on two sides by the hospital walls stretching up in red-bricked Victorian architecture. A lawn sloped down to an orchard on the far side and a mossy footpath led between the trees which gave welcome shade to the hot mid-morning sunshine. Just a few weeks before, these trees had been laden with blossom, but a late Spring storm had blown most of them clean, and all that was left was the memory and wet petals clumped under-foot as they walked. Several benches were scattered along the edge of the path, and the trio made their way to sit on one of them under the shade of a tree.
An overwhelming feeling of peace enveloped Karen as she sat beside Evelyn. She smiled to herself, and glanced at John who was at the other end of the bench.
'What are you grinning about?' he laughed.
'I don't know.' She looked up at the tree. 'It's the sunshine I suppose, and being outside. She looked at Evelyn. 'Are you alright, Evelyn?'
Evelyn looked back at her. 'Thank you,' she said.
Evelyn just smiled, saying nothing.