My eyes are closed; birds are tweeting, the ocean breeze caresses my face, and the sand is warm beneath my back.
“We’re going to make you more comfortable, Alison…” a soft voice sounds, and I try to turn towards it, but I can’t.
“It’s not like she can hear you…” a rough voice says, further away…
“You don’t know that,” the soft voice is closer now, and I try to let them know I can hear them, that I’m here. But I can’t, and as I drift back to sleep, I wonder where ‘here’ is.
When I wake next, I know exactly where I am; the scent of the sea has been replaced by disinfectant. What I thought was sand beneath me is a soft mattress, and as I open my painful eyes I see a panelled ceiling. Morbid curiosity tells me to look around, but I realise I cannot move, that I am frozen in place. My heart races, and my eyes search frantically for something, anything familiar.
They find a nurse, whose blonde hair sits in a bun on top of her head; her blue eyes are kind as she smiles reassuringly. When she steps forward and places her hand gently over mine, I am still panicking, but I trust her immediately.
“Alison, I’m Leila,” I recognise her soft voice instantly. “Can you hear me?”
I want to nod; say yes; squeeze her hand – but nothing works, and I start to panic, hear the quickening beeps of a heart monitor. But Leila is calm, and her hand rests soothingly on my arm.
“I know this is scary, Alison,” she says softly. “But if you can hear me, please blink twice.”
She has patient, understanding eyes; I hesitate for only a moment before doing as she asks. She smiles, keeping hold of my hand as she asks me simple questions, to which I respond with one blink, or two.
When she introduces Dr Michaels, he asks her to stay; if I could thank him, I would. Instead, I meet his brown eyes, and I blink twice for ‘yes’.
It is tiresome, and lonely, to lie unspeaking and unmoving, with the same four walls for company. I am not always alone; nurses and carers come in every day, though I recognise few of them. They wash me, change me, dress me in clothes they’ve stretched over my rigid limbs, change my catheter and swap my IV bags, but then they move on with their day. Now and then, I receive a ‘good morning’, but I am lucky even to get that.
I feel everything; I see everything; I hear everything. But everyone seems unaware.
But nurses’ days are long, and hard. So when they handle me a little too roughly, or pretend not to notice my blinking to get their attention, I remind myself they are busy, with many patients, and they don’t have the time to decipher my blinkered riddles.
No nurse is perfect, I tell myself, as they roll me side-to-side, discussing the crawl of traffic along the motorway that brought me to hell.
No nurse is perfect, I think, as they move me up the bed, dissecting the minor details of the love lives I can’t have.
No nurse is perfect, I repeat, as they monitor my fluids, complaining about disagreements with children I can never bear.
No nurse is perfect. Except for Leila.
She walks in now; smiles at me, talks to me in that musically beautiful way the others have forgotten – like I’m the most normal person on earth.
I have an alphabet board which my therapist has recommended, but looking at it for too long hurts my eyes, so for now Leila sits, patiently asks me questions, and I continue to answer, with one blink or two.
The door opens, the heavy tread of shoes and the rough voice from the beach telling me Brutus is here; it’s 6pm and time to change my position. I tried to refuse a few times, but after two days and an admittedly sore left buttock, I gave in, so as Leila walks over to ask my permission, I pre-empt her, and I blink twice.
“Let’s get this done,” Brutus says, “I need to be out on time, and if Mr Doltman isn’t in the loo by half past, I won’t make it.”
Leila walks into my line of sight as she says, “Alison, Matt-” that must be his real name, “-has a date this evening – isn’t that nice?” Her voice is sarcastic, and if I could laugh, I would; instead, I blink once. “Is it alright if we change your position now?”
She acts deliberately, methodically, taking time over every task and talking me through everything, as though to make a point. Brutus mutters something about talking to vegetables, and I would punch him, but I can’t move my hands. So I close my eyes, and fight back tears as Leila rolls me onto my back, removes the sliding sheet from beneath me, and politely asks him to step outside.
I hear the door close, and nothing else, until they come back in. But I guess what’s been said, because Brutus has put himself in my eye-line, and for the first time his green eyes meet mine; there is a slight flash of annoyance, but after I hold his gaze for a moment, it is replaced by a flicker of guilt.
“I’m sorry, Alison,” he says, and his tone is softer and kinder than I have heard before. “I- is it okay if I call you Alison?”
I hesitate, but then I blink twice, and he looks relieved. “Can we reposition you properly now?” he asks, and I blink twice again. This time, as they roll me gently between them, Matt speaks to both of us in a surprisingly soft voice, explaining what he is doing, even apologising when he removes the blanket and I am left slightly chilled.
When they are done, and I am left comfortably propped on my right side, I catch Leila’s eye; I wish I could smile – a big smile, all teeth and dimples. But I can’t, so just for a moment, I hold her gaze, and I blink three times.
She understands, and nods and smiles, then in a soft voice that I am certain Matt can’t hear, she adds, “It’s my pleasure.”