My friend finished his work. Afflicted with a fever which led to disorientation, my friend brought his car to a standstill at a dead-end street in Illawong, a great distance from his route home.
On the day of his release from hospital, I held my friend’s hand as he accepted more of my coffee while he told me his story.
Two men approached as he sprawled half out of the car. ‘You alright, don’t look too good.’ The big man turned to his mate, ‘What do you think, Ned, shouldn’t be driving.’
A house door opened, and another man joined the conversation. Tucking his shirt in, thongs crunching the gravel, I thought, footy watcher, his beer breath and fish bait smell mingled as he lent into my face. Diagnosis complete, he straightened, let out a relieving belch and gave his verdict while nodding to the floral dressed lady standing on the doorstep. ‘Yer roight, boys, sit him on the grass, eh.’
A few minutes later, the floral dressed woman reappeared. ‘Said quarter hour.’
‘Righto, love. I’ll stay with him until they come so youse fellas, can go, eh.’
I lay on the cooling grass under a large gumtree. I woke to gentle pressure on my shoulder. The face moved in and out of focus as I whispered, ‘Are you the police?’
‘Up you get, lad We’re ambulance, taking you to hospital. Can you walk?’
I nodded and fell into his arms. The ambulance driver negotiated the Shire’s potholes while Brad, I had seen his name pinned to his uniform, placed a Masonite board on his lap and Studied the sheet of paper clipped there. With a kind face and business voice, he asked, ‘What is your full name?’
Waves of fever were hammering, and he had asked me to think! I concentrated and with a huge effort gave Brad my names and promptly went into a fug with his next question. ‘Date of birth?’
This question paused the fever. I could not remember, but then a number appeared on my screen. Was it right? Normally, at these times, I would have lengthy discussions, tete a tete, until an appropriate solution emerged. Firstly, through the fever fog, I studied Brad’s increasing impatience. I used the emergency shortened version of these discussions, which often ended in bad solutions and equally bad outcomes.
If I dropped my age a decade, that would present me as a suave person, mature beyond his years, a handsome catch if ever there was one. Short discussion was shaping well. The alternative would be to lift my age by a decade. Hmm. Well; plusses would surely see increased attention to my wellbeing, greater loving care from gorgeous nurses. Then again, they may see me as closer to the drop-off point. Less attention may mean a hastened exit. I gambled on human decency.
Brad was restless. He had run out of good guy genes, so, I quickly wrapped up my discussions, signed off on the conclusion and smiled.
He did not smile back. With a much sharper tone, he informed me, ‘Age, mate? Gotta have an age.’ He looked at the form, pen hovering. ‘Says so here.’ He turned the form toward me and tapped it.
‘Up,’ I said, ‘Definitely up.’
I could barely see him when he queried, ‘Up?’
‘Sorry.’ I gave him the figure and stopped fighting the fever. I dozed until we arrived at the hospital.
I barely remember being transferred from the ambulance. My steel tray carrying a thin mattress and one shrivelled person was parked in the middle of an empty large room. Brad and his ambulance buddy sat on a bench by the wall. I found myself staring at a high ceiling, something I was to do often throughout my stay. By my discharge I was qualified to write a doctoral thesis on the mental effects of staring at ceilings.
Trouble on the horizon. A person, wearing a light brown uniform with angled dark brown stripes and swept hair, power walked across the room and stopped at the foot of my bed. She whipped out her Masonite board further burdening an overloaded brain. I looked at Brad who nodded before returning to his laptop: tap, tap, tap. If this were my report he was writing, it would be longer than Lolita and far less readable. I really was ill.
I coughed out a reply that I hoped was appropriate.
‘Just a few questions before we can admit you. What is your full name?’
That was the easy question, and I had her scrambling to write it down, stopping a couple of times to check spelling and if she had heard correctly. If Brad stopped typing, he could have given it to her. With a sigh, I closed my eyes, there was nothing more on the ceiling that interested me, and I snuggled under the blanket. It was the heels of her patent leather shoes clicking that alerted me to the next question. ‘What is your age?’
‘My age?’ I asked warily. I looked at Brad typing more words, tap, tap, tap, and thought to ask him. Delaying the response, I asked again, ‘My age, you said?’
‘Yes.’ She looked at her sheet then fixed me with impatient eyes.
I could not recall what I had told Brad, but the formula was gradually coming back. I muttered, up then down, then said, probably up. Oh buggar. The haze was closing in. ‘Up.’ I said.’ ‘Definitely up.’
‘Mr Smith, we use figures here.’
‘Sorreee!’ Her peevish tone was not helping. After all, Brad had said I was in a bad way. I gave her the ‘up’ figures and looked across to Brad for approval. Tap, tap, tap.
‘See Mr Smith. Not so hard, really. One more task before we can register you. A few questions, mostly yes or no answers.’
I tried to recall the last time I had an exam requiring yes/no answers. If one knew sufficient correct answers, (I was quite intuitive), the rest could be given repeats of the same answer. The final score might reach 50%.
The first question was medical to which I answered no. I continued saying no until she stopped and said, ‘You remember question four where you answered no, then if that were so, the answer to this question would be yes, don’t you agree?’
I looked closely at the questions and saw the mistake. ‘Oh, I said. ‘I see.’ Which of course I did not. ‘Easily fixed, then. If the first one should be yes, then this one should be that and that would fix the problem, unless they are both meant to be that’s, or perhaps, this’s.’
She looked at me with curious eyes. ‘Mr Smith. I am going to note the matter and let the hospital tests seek the truth. You don’t look like a patient with syphilis.’
‘One more question, Mr Smith. Arising from your responses, I must ask, is there record of insanity in your family?’
Now, I am good at recognising trick questions, like when was it, I stopped beating my wife, which of course the answer is never as I was not married. Maybe an engaging tone here. ‘Are you asking is my fever and roaring headache due to beating my head against a wall? I am confused, yes. History. I recall my mother got cross when I copied the dog and peed on the carpet. In hospital she yanked my hair, her way of saying how much she loved me, my father explained.
‘Thank you, Mr Smith. Now one more test, which I know you will pass with ease. A matter of dates.’
‘Dates, I love eating dates.’
She shifted her weight and tapped the Masonite board. ‘Just tell me what day it is.’
‘You are right. As we say at home, eezy-peezy. You see, instead of going to church on Sunday and all that, I use the day to set my week out, marking each day with a specific chore. You see my reasoning.’
‘Mr Smith, just the day.’ I heard the click of leather shoes.
‘Sorry. Well, I know what I had planned for Monday and I got started, so yes, Monday.’ I hoped she noticed my pleased look.
People were gathering, she waved them to wait. ‘Last question, I promise, and I’ll give you a clue. What is the date and name of the month? Clue, Mr Smith. The first day was last Thursday. And March, has just finished.’ She said with a sarcastic tone. ‘You have enough fingers for that calculation.’
‘I love clues.’ I said and took her advice. I spread the old counting sticks and chose the right hand first. It was getting a bit complicated, so, I changed hands and reckoned on four.
I told her it was the month of May. This was deliberate as I never speak the month after March.
‘Well done, Mr Smith. In you go, get well soon. Don’t want you here longer than necessary.’
The man who had been waiting impatiently came across. The woman disappeared, Brad closed his laptop, the man grabbed the handles of my steel tray and away we went. I knew all along that I would pass the exam.
New faces. New surrounds. My wheelie bin driver who did not hit one corner drove my tray like a professional. Stop: backing – beep, beep, beeeeeeeeeep. Stop. wheels braked and we were parked.
It was another big room with lots of people and beds across from mine occupied by a lot of old dears. Different coloured uniforms, dark blue, light blue, yellow, green. Some trees were huddled together not far from my bed. A couple broke away and came toward me. The first one, a shortish man in a green uniform called the other, a woman, closer. My heart leapt when I saw the Masonite board. She smiled, ‘Hello, just a few questions, please, your full name.’ She lent on the word, full.
If she understood my torment as I tried to remember had I gone up or down a decade, she might have stayed smiling a little longer as by now I knew, asking my name was the first of two questions.
She repeated, ‘Your name, full name.’
I put the consistent opening of a conversation with this question down to shyness, a convenient way of breaking the hiatus. In a confidential tone I gave her my name.
‘Your date of birth.’
‘Whispering up, she looked startled as if I were about to add something unpleasant when she retorted, ‘In numbers Mr Smith. We don’t have time to convert your mathematical formulas.’
I gave her the up a decade number and, remembering my promise to help with their shyness, smiled sweetly.
Another tree peeled himself away from the huddle. ‘Ben’s my name, just going to do some tests.’
A fourth upright marched across swishing bits and pieces; lots of tubes and needles and syringes. Judging by the blood she guided into vials pumped by my good friend who did not miss a beat, I thought she must have severed a vein. I noted her possessive look as she disappeared with lots of my gorgeous blood.
Ben’s turn again. He produced a clear plastic container with a white top and an opaque container with a brown top. He walked me to the bathroom explaining I was to put urine in the clear container and stools in the brown topped one. In the tones of a father giving his young son his first lesson in hitting a cricket ball, he said encouragingly, ‘Just through the door, take your time. ‘I know you can do it. I will wait here. If you need me, just press the green button and I’ll come in.’
I was still struggling to stay upright. I wondered why the pee splashed until I saw the lid had not been removed. On to the brown top container. This was difficult as all day I had been splashing this stuff about like the bishop splashes holy water and with the same consistency. I clutched my efforts in my hand and stared at the door, then remembered the button. Press the green one he said. I pressed and waited anxiously. Panicking, I opened the door and found Ben had left his post. I retraced my steps until I came to a line of beds. I spied one about the right distance from the trees and slipped under the blanket.
One of them hurried to me. ‘And you are?’
That was interesting. A new approach. I will try one too. Shyly, I said, ‘You know who I am. Do you want me to give you a hint?’ At which, she stood straight and tall, the tallest of the trees and whipped out her board. She stared harshly. With a measured tone, said, ‘Give me your full name.’
It was inevitable, I said to myself. Feverish, high temperature, sick with a raging virus. A little buggie thing cavorting in my good blood, I screamed at her with the full force of my depleted reserves. JONNOTHAN APRIL HUGGIN-SMITH – And don’t forget the HYPHEN.’ I shrank into that pond of despair that follows one everywhere throughout one’s life, ready to devour one’s very soul. My outburst had shattered the psychedelic dream I was enjoying of my steel tray sinking into the beach sand as the waves gently lifted me away.
Alarmed, she stepped back. Fear crossed her face. Well, it would, would it not? Hairy git with his fever and confusion. Mother never explained why she called me, April, but over the years it has caused me trouble when people required my full name, hence I always avoided saying it if possible. And as for Huggin. People were quick to mouth other alternatives.
The nurse’s training converted the hiatus to action. With a touch of tenderness in her voice and a twinkle in her eye, she held my hand and replied, ‘Well it is not, Sarah Osborne, is it?’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘Wrong bed. Thought it smelt nice.’
‘Well, Mr Hyphen, let us get you to your bed. And by the by, my name is September.’
I groaned. With April Showers we now have September in the Rain. Or was she being clever? Tucked in tighter than necessary, but not with straps, I waited for the next onslaught.
Ben popped across. It was like running open house for ‘cup of tea day’ for the neighbours. ‘Worried about your confusion so we’re taking you for a scan.’
He was worried about my confusion. I was unconfused; knew where I was, sort of, certainly knew my name having to repeat it multiple times so Masonite boards could be filled in. Knew my age, vaguely and trees would split from the forest and give me the latest advice that had come to hand. However, it gave me a chance for another ride with a wheelie bin driver. Problem was, my bin had a puncture and each turn of the solid wheel, where a piece was missing, the wheel went clunk and the tray would shudder.
Back from the head scan, I could tell by the smiles all round, that I had passed the exam and, as soon as my blood pressure showed they had left more in than they took, I was clunked to another ward.
Settling comfortably into my ensuite private room for those who are lepers or worse, my equanimity was disrupted by another Masonite board. Masked and gowned, the woman, I think, put the board before her, they love that flourish, perhaps intimidating for some, but for me, palpitations. I took a deep breath as the pantomime commenced.
‘Please give me your full name.’
I liked the word please, top floor attention here. Having passed the information and without sarcasm, I waited for the follow-up.
‘Your date of birth.’
I’d given it so many times I had actually forgotten when I was born. Mission accomplished, the next process was taking my temperature, blood pressure, heartbeat, and oxygen levels. I saw no alarm on the nurse’s face as she attached me to a tube in each arm, so either she had written me off or, like any good club, the membership committee had approved my application.
Days passed. Doctors visited, nurses came and went. Passable food passed. The routine was fixed, the tension had eased. My favourite pastime was watching the drip, drip, drip as the clear liquid entered my arms. I conjectured, which one would win.
Come Thursday, four days in, the head doctor, highly regarded amongst the nursing staff, declared me ready to start the return journey. I liked him and his little group of professionals because not once did any of them ask my name or age.
Two more tests, a scan of my mid-riff and a sonograph of my lower leg, seeking I suspected, the best place to perform an Amputation, then off to the lower decks for final prayers before discharge. Ah, but which exit teased my mind to the very end.
A young learner nurse brough a tube of cream and said it was for skin reparation. It was to be applied to the skin under the compression bandage she had wrapped awkwardly around my badly swollen leg. No, not a bee sting, but apparently a residual effect of my affliction. She dismissed the problem. Easily fixed. She suggested I was to smear it on the other leg. See, good lateral thinking, problem solved. Avoided having to unstrap the compression bandage, apply the cream and re-strap. That nurse will go far.
As they all lined up to wish me well, I thought the waving a little more vigorous than necessary. My favourite nurse, September, sidled up to me. I thought she was planning some sort of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers two-step, a final bonding. Instead, she whispered in my ear, ‘Next time, Mr Hyphen, if I were you, I’d drop my age a decade.’