My phone is ringing somewhere downstairs which can’t be a good thing. Not only because I’m in the bath which is where I always seem to be when I get a call, but because phone calls late at night are rarely positive in my experience. My girlfriend answers it and I hear a discussion ensue, her voice muffled. Footsteps sound out along the hall and she hands me my mobile and tells me that the Ex-Wife is on the other end, calling from the local hospital.
Later, I find myself walking into a hot waiting room full of the sick and injured and wonder how so many people are here so late at night. They all sit on uncomfortable, crappy plastic chairs in the hope of seeing a doctor sometime soon, some reading books and others who have come with a friend are chatting. At the other end of the waiting room rows of vending machines light up the doors into the A&E for children and I make my way towards them.
Rows of bright yellow curtains greet me. They surround the beds so that the inhabitants are hidden from view. Hushed voices come from behind. Voices of parents reassuring little children or maybe even themselves.
The sound of my flip-flops echo, slapping on the dark black shiny floor as I make my way towards the last yellow curtain. I pull aside the curtain and there is Beth lying on a bed looking very pale and tearful, her forearm resting across her head, her legs pulled up so that her knees are fully bent and against her chest. Standing next to Beth are my Ex-Wife and her long-time boyfriend. He looks pissed off that I’ve turned up; she looks as though she needs a break.
They go and I’m left with Beth for the first time in a while. For a few minutes we hardly talk. I rub my hand on her arm as she tells me what’s going on and when she’s finished we sit for a bit listening to the world outside our yellow cubicle. The little boy next door has broken his arm and I can hear him telling his dad,
‘Don’t make me laugh dad, if I laugh it hurts.’ We hear him laugh again and then he cries out and then he laughs again.
Somewhere a baby is screaming its head off. It’s that sort of dry sounding scream that babies make when they are tiny. Just below the yellow curtains the bottom of a pair of black trousers has appeared. The hems of them have come unstitched and even so they barely cover the worn out shoes below them. The owner of the trousers shouts – in tears – to a woman across the room about the screaming baby,
‘I can’t stay here listening to him crying anymore. Do you hear, he keeps holding his breath?’
I point out to Beth that the blue plaster on the back of her hand has little animals printed on it. I ask her what they are and even though she’s nearly fifteen years old she plays the game and tells me. I notice that the bed can be adjusted to lots of different angles and so I jack it up, her feet much higher than her head till she laughs. A nurse opens the curtains nearly catching us out. We can go upstairs now to the teenage ward. As we leave I notice a young girl dressed in black turns away from a baby that is in a cot and stands hands on hips, her face so very red from tears.
It seems we walk for miles along a labyrinth of empty corridors, some with yellow buckets catching rainwater that runs through holes in the roof. The nurse escorting us tries to explain in a soft Irish voice,
‘This building is just so old that it’s falling apart.’
The nurse seems embarrassed by the leaks but she needn’t be, it’s not her fault. We continue our long walk past darkened windows, occasionally passing a cleaner with a mop working the nightshift.
We pass the closed fracture clinic, neurology and then eventually I see the double doors to the children’s ward. Next to them a single green door leads to the maternity unit. The last time I was here I proudly carried out - in my arms - a little baby girl. The girl I return with now is still little to me, she’s just older.
They put her in a side room on her own. It is silent up here compared to the A&E. It’s also cooler and I unfold the blanket from the end of the bed and cover her with it. The TV doesn’t work at this time of night but the radio does and I flick through the stations looking for something she might like eventually settling for late night Jazz which she hates.
‘Hey,’ I tell her, ‘Jazz is good for this time of night.’ But we decide to turn it off and instead I get on the bed next to her and we lay listening to distant noises in the hospital.
Later, her mum comes back alone.
She has brought a toothbrush; PJs, magazines and a phone charger.
We talk for five minutes about Beth, and then because she is tired and not thinking straight she tells me an odd story about a frog. Years ago when we were still married we did some landscaping in the back garden. We had to move the shed and in doing so we disturbed a frog that lived underneath. That frog has apparently been living under the new decking ever since, quite happily eating the slugs that it shares its home with. Earlier in the day the Ex-wife was strimming the grass when she accidently cut one of the frog’s legs off.
‘It was just a frog, but it was my frog,’ she says, as though even a garden frog can become someone you miss.
'It’s late,’ I tell them both, stating the obvious, ‘I best get home.’
Beth looks out from behind the arm that is hiding her face, and asks,
‘Will you be able to find your way out ok?’
‘Yes I’m all grown up now,’ I reply, which makes her smile. I give Beth a hug and I’m gone.
When I get back home, I text this message to her:
I can’t find my way out so I’ve got a bed in the geriatric ward. See you at breakfast.
Her reply is swift, as she like all teenagers has texting thumbs:
Lol are you home?
I try to get to sleep knowing that I will struggle. I think about the girl, and the little baby and wonder if it’s ok. I check that my phone is still turned on and hope that it doesn’t ring again tonight. For a few moments, I lay dreaming of Beth and a dad with a baby and hopes, prayers, and of yellow curtains and Cheetahs.