By Sam West
He takes one last look at her through the glass panel in the door before he leaves: he does this every night. She looks serene in her sleep, completely still apart from her chest falling and rising with every slow breath. One last look and he makes his way down the sterile corridor. He knows it well. He’s been walking down it every day for a year now.
He can only half-remember when it was all new to him, when he couldn’t pinpoint exactly where the wall paint had been chipped. The first day. He remembers but barely. Snapshots at best. Throwing up at work after he put down the phone, not quite making the bin in his office. The incessant cacophony of car horns and road rage flying around the streets as he broke every speed limit to get to the hospital. Then seeing her being wheeled on a bed in reception — he’d made it just in time — and running over. Shouting at the nurses, moving quickly through the labyrinths of the wards, as they listed off medical terms to one another and ignored him until one of them said: ‘Excuse me sir, will you please calm down, we’re doing everything we can and you’re not helping any’ — he remembers that nurse the best. Condescending bitch.
That was the fastest day of his life; followed by the slowest year. A year of waiting. For the first month, he was at the hospital every day, all day. Sometimes he would read to her, other times he’d talk to her, sometimes he’d just watch the television and hold her hand. She stayed still, the same peaceful smile plastered over her unconscious face, extended now by a scar that ran from the right side of her mouth to just under her left eye. He hoped her dreams were happier than the ones that came to him at night
Now, walking down the corridor, he passes a couple nurses, Jane and Margaret. They know him well enough to stop and chat to him but they can also tell that right at that moment, he doesn’t want to. His face is creased with anxiety and he is holding the cigarette he has rolled between his gaunt fingers, ready to light it as soon as he gets the hell out of there. When he reaches the end of ward one of the older nurses glares at him. He gets the message, conceals the cigarette out of sight behind his ear and washes his hands at the appointed stations.
Every day, he had been here. Even after he had to go back to work, he drove to the hospital straight from the office, lying his blazer on the visitor’s chair in the room and loosening his tie, staying for at least an hour or two.
The perfect fiancée, everyone had called him that and in all honesty he agreed. He wasn’t prepared to let her go yet, the woman who had brought him happiness for five and a half years and the one whom he believed would bring him decades more. He was prepared to endure the waiting, the sympathetic looks from all his family friends and colleagues that he resented, the gentle suggestions that he should move on; he was prepared to endure it all if it meant that one day she would wake up and they could continue.
The bags on his eyes were set fixtures now, as permanent as his nostrils and lips. It haunted his dreams every night, his subconscious recreating the crash, piecing it all together from the police reports he had read. He sees her every night, flying through the windscreen, shards of glass deeply piercing her, ripping apart her neck and face. Her body crashing onto the hard concrete, practically lifeless, as traffic halts to a stop and sirens approach.
The guy, some perpetual drunk who had half a bottle of whiskey before he got in his car, got two years in jail for his crime. Two years. He still remembers thinking on the day of the trial he would be out jail before she woke up. On better nights, he dreams of killing the alcoholic who did this to her, to him, with his bare hands. Only then he sleeps with a smile on his face.
At first he was shocked when he saw her. But he has learned to live with it, to accept the new look she has acquired, courtesy of the crash. When he looks at her now, he hardly notices the huge, angry incision mark around her throat, where the doctors had cut it open when her respiratory system almost gave up on her six months ago. He’s come to accept the scar. Even when his attention is drawn to the piss bag on one side of her bed, and the tube filled with baby food on the other side, he still loves her.
He passes through reception and sees the same depressing sights he sees every day. People rushing through the entrance doors, with all the colour drawn out of them, some carrying kids with broken legs or bloody foreheads. There is a cleaner permanently stationed in the reception area, ready to clean up any vomit and blood that graces its floor. They earn every penny they are paid for. To the right is the waiting room, a space filled with crying and empty assurances that everything is going to be all right.
One year he has waited. One year of his fiancée’s heart-rate monitor being the soundtrack to his life.
Pull the plug, the doctors had said, the chances of her waking up are extremely unlikely. We’d recommend you turn the life support machine off and let her die now, in dignity. Maybe it’s time to move on, his friends had suggested, maybe it’s for the best. We can’t hold on forever, her mother even agreed. Pull the plug, she’s never going to wake up. But he always knew she would.
And a week ago, she did.
A week ago she did wake up: she woke up and now she doesn’t remember who he is.
He had been so excited when doctors told him her toes had moved during observation. And then the phone call came, she was awake. He’d rushed there, almost as fast as he had the day of the accident. The moment he had had been dreaming about had come. He grinned all the way down the corridor and burst into the room arms spread, eyes twinkling. And was greeted with his fiancée of nearly seven years sat up with a blank, confused stare on her face.
She doesn’t remember him. She knows his name now, and their history (he’s managed to drill that into her head over the past seven days) but she doesn’t remember him really. She doesn’t recall what he’s like, what he does for a job, his friends’ — once their friends — names. All of the inside jokes he tries to bring up, the memories they shared are met with a vacant gaze, a muted smile, a polite laugh.
It’s just two strangers talking now. He wonders if they’re really engaged anymore, now that she’s woken up and found herself trapped in the unknown.
He keeps trying, every day he still comes in, and if she’s awake, he’ll scour his own brain for memories that might make her remember. He brings pictures, postcards, and letters. Nothing has worked so far. She smiles and nods, but it’s like she’s looking through someone else’s photos, like it’s a completely different woman with him.
The doctors tell him it happens sometimes, with that sympathetic look on their face they’ve perfected with years of delivering news of cancer, tumours and death. People wake up, don’t remember anyone in their ‘past’ and struggle to reconnect with them. Sometimes it’s just best to start again. One of them had told him it’s a miracle she can still speak like an adult after such head trauma, and smiled. As if that was any consolation.
He walks through the car park now, thoughts spinning round his head and lights his cigarette. Above him, autumn sheds leaves and a couple fall on his neck. He brushes them off, no longer finding their dewy wet feel refreshing like he once did, and walks towards his car.
One year. One year of waiting and the scars and the piss bags and she doesn’t even remember him. It’s over. He won’t give up now, he can’t — especially after sacrificing a whole year — but he can’t see himself ever getting the perfect relationship back they once had.
He hears them again now, the doctors: maybe it’s time to let go, maybe you should turn the life support machine off; pull the plug; it’s what we recommend. Right now, as he walks to his car and begins the monotonous hour ride back to his apartment, he wishes he’d agreed with them.