The woman in the bed opposite goes on about her meal again; it needs salt and when the nurse tries to explain about the human heart the woman hauls herself up in the bed and says there’s been a mistake, she shouldn’t be in the cardio ward in the first place. She drops the thick blue warming lid back over her dinner with a clang. ‘I’m not eating it.’ The ward falls quiet. The man next to me rattles his newspaper and someone further down swishes the curtains around their bed.
I keep thinking about salt. Salt caravans. I’ve read about them somewhere…camels laden with salt trekking across the desert. And then I remember it’s not salt grains the camels carry in their saddle bags but great slabs cut from a salt mine in the Sahara. It makes me pleased to remember; for a moment I even consider telling this to the woman opposite but now she is talking to the orderly, her voice breathless.
‘You remember me?’ she says. ‘You took me here, remember?’
The ward lights dim. This is a friendless landscape, I tell myself
Usually I go to sleep by counting the faint blue and green triangles in my curtains. So far I’ve got to 235. But today I’m wide awake. Through the small gap in the curtain I can see the woman’s red nightie as she moves restlessly in the bed. Soon it will be visiting time and then after that the troubles of the evening meal will begin all over again.
Out in the brightly lit corridor the orderly pauses from mopping the floor. He points to the yellow sign, Hazardous, Wet Floor. I ask him about the kitchen.
He straightens up, places the mop against the wall next to the laundry bags. His face sags.
‘What kitchen?’ he says.
‘The kitchen,’ I begin again, ‘on this floor.’
He shakes his head. It appears everything comes up in the lift and when I ask where the nurses have a cup of tea he shrugs. ‘Everything comes in the trucks,’ he says.
There is something familiar yet disconcerting about the sameness of the wards; the long corridors stacked with medication trolleys, the phones ringing in the nurses’ station, the relentless warmth and smells. I pass room after room where people lie, their clean apologetic faces part of the bland scenery. I walk on slowly until I find the well-worn route from Ward 12 that goes along the corridors, past the notices about the next social ‘do’, past the various offices, and links back to the ward entrance. A woman pushing her drip passes me. The metal stand is gaily decorated with what looks like coloured paper flowers and get well cards. Her head is down and she looks pissed off. Further along I recognise an older man who asks whether ‘I’m winning’ and gives me a wink.
I keep walking
one hoof after the other through the tan-coloured dunes.
The lift doesn’t go down to the basement so I get out on the ground floor and take the stairs. The lights are dimmed and I use the hand rail as I go down. An orderly coming up gives me a funny look but I don’t break my step. The winding stairs go on forever and at one point I start to have a panicky lost feeling. But then the light changes and the concrete walls are lit with a paler hue.
I hear the kitchen before I see it. It’s the sound of metal, trolley carts, the hiss of steam and above that the voices. A gust of smells and steamy air wafts from the cave-like entrance. The woman closest to me rapidly stacks the blue domed dishes onto a trolley without a pause. I stand, marvelling at their industry as workers in plastic caps run from the massive stainless benches to the ovens. For a while no one notices me. I’m just another patient in my cotton gown and white surgical stockings. Anonymous. The thought is both daunting and thrilling. I don’t hang around for long. It only takes a few minutes.
I stop several times on my way back up the darkened stairs. Laughing as I hang onto the rail and press my face into the cool concrete walls. At the landing a dark-haired nurse pushing a trolley of meds glances at me then rattles past. I trudge on until the corridor begins to look familiar and as I pass a small outside balcony I see the woman’s husband braced against the wind, a smoke in his hand.
Back in the ward the woman has partly closed her curtains. The man in the bed next to mine raises himself up. A froth of grey hair trembles over his pyjama top. ‘You weren’t here,’ he says. He points to the cup of cold tea on my bedside locker. ‘I didn’t know what you wanted…’ There is a faint bewildered tone in his voice. I pull the curtains and lie on the bed. My fingers trace the outline of the plastic salt container in my pocket. I haul it onto my chest, staring at the blue lettering.
The white gold of the Sahara. The drivers load each camel with four huge slabs for the 450-mile journey. It takes them an arduous month to cart the tombstone slabs over the desert to Timbuktu. I stare at the plastic salt container thinking of the wealth it could buy… slaves, soldiers; a harem if I was that way inclined.
The woman sits upright in bed. She’s changed into another nightie; this one is patterned with teddy bears and red polka dot bows. Her husband is back reading the paper. Through the slit in my curtain the woman stares straight ahead at me. There is a grandness in her disappointment. A sphinx in the desert. I crawl my way backwards over my bed when I hear the food trolleys down the corridor. Soon the girl in the white smock, hair tied in a topknot, will cheerfully hand out the blue domed dinner bowls.
Bed 5, beef stew
Bed 4, clear soup, there you go
Bed 6 custard and fruit
The man to my left will tell me yet again he’s not eating. Nothing, not even a barley sugar. And the woman’s husband staying on after visiting time will surely put down his newspaper, clear his throat.
‘My wife…’ he will begin.
It hardly matters the woman hasn’t spoken to me all day. Or that she shares her grapes with the other two women by the window, but not with me. I feel I know her; her different nighties, which side she prefers the commode, her wants and needs… I look down at the salt again, touch the spout with my finger and lick. The grains melt in my mouth, swirling saltiness over my tongue, flooding my palate.
I ease myself out of bed. Voices fall away in anticipation as the food trolley gets closer, the rattle and squeak of wheels over the floor. I smile as I approach the bed opposite. The man glances sideways at me and then at his wife. I feel for a moment as if I’m in a biblical scene, the bearer of all precious things. I hold the salt aloft. The woman stares blankly at me. I stretch over the bed to place the plastic container on her tray and in that moment I know she’s been in my story but I have never been in hers. She raises her thin eyebrows towards her husband, takes the measure of him then back at the container.
‘Salt,’ I say, helpfully.