Thursday, 29 May 2014

TLC - Tender Loving Care, a short story by Louise Johnson

‘How’s Gilda doing today, Grace?’ Mrs Cooper asked.

‘Last night we thought she was a goner,’ Grace replied, as blunt as ever, ‘but she’s hanging on. She’s a fighter.’

‘She is that. Strong as an ox.’

Mrs Cooper snipped off the chrysanthemums’ dead heads with more force than usual. How long had Gilda been ‘hanging on’, as staff nurse Grace put it? Four weeks, going on five? The delay had at least allowed Mrs Cooper to get on top of the situation but it was proving a strain. Less than two weeks was indecently fast; anything over six started to become tedious. Extremely tedious.

‘Fancy a cuppa, Mrs C?’

‘I’d love one. Then we can put our feet up and maybe you’d run through the reports with me? You know how I like to be kept up-to-date.’

Grace bumbled off to the ward’s kitchen to brew up and search for biscuits, leaving Mrs Cooper alone in the nurses’ office to attend to the pot plants. But once Grace was gone, she put down her sprayer and secateurs and pushing the door to, picked up the nursing files. She liked Grace. Grace didn’t mince words unlike stuck-up nurse Dolores who seemed to think hospital volunteers were a lower form of life.

No, you knew where you were with Grace. No funny medical terms. None of your ‘stable’ or ‘doing well’ nonsense that Dolores was apt to spout when Mrs Cooper asked after a patient.

Grace cut to the chase. So, old Mrs Piper’s blood pressure was ‘down in her boots’, Ella’s lungs were ‘packing up’ and as for Gilda, they thought they had ‘lost’ her, leaving Mrs Cooper with visions of nurses rummaging through laundry bags and rubbish bins in their attempt to find her. Indeed, it was Grace who had told Mrs Cooper that the little red dot in the nursing notes, which she now found displayed on Gilda’s records, meant ‘do not resuscitate’. What a shame, thought Mrs Cooper. If the patient stopped breathing, that was it. No calling in of the crash team. No ER heroics.

When Grace came back, Mrs Cooper sipped tea from the hospital’s regulation green crockery and munched a soggy biscuit while Grace ran through Mary Seacole ward’s recent happenings.

A shabby visitor passed the office and glanced in but Mrs Cooper took no notice. Shabby visitors didn’t interest her.

‘Well, I can’t sit around all day,’ said Mrs Cooper, draining her cup. ‘Time to go and deliver some TLC to Frank.’

‘Oh, he’ll like that,’ said Grace. ‘There can’t be long left.’

Mrs Cooper allowed herself a little smile as she pushed her trolley from bed to bed. She never sold many of her celebrity magazines or much of her fruit or Lucozade but it didn’t matter. Her voluntary sessions at the hospital included shop and chat, with emphasis on the chat. Many of the old ducks on Mary Seacole were on modest pensions so making a profit was unlikely. However, Mrs Cooper liked to imagine the patients derived some succour from her sympathetic bedside manner.

A red-eyed Frank was sitting next to Gilda, where he had kept vigil for much of the last month.

‘Can I tempt you, Frank?’ said Mrs Cooper, more coquettishly than she had intended but the poor man looked as though he needed to lighten up.

Frank shook his head and Mrs Cooper wondered if he would start crying if he tried to speak.

She moved some of the plastic tubing keeping Gilda alive and perched on the edge of the bed, her stocking-encased leg almost brushing Frank’s corduroy covered thigh.

‘You ought to look after yourself at times like this or you’ll end up in the next bed to Gilda. Now, she wouldn’t want that, would she?’

‘No, you’re right. She wouldn’t,’ replied Frank, looking at Mrs Cooper for the first time. ‘Give me one of your sandwiches then. Any flavour. I’m not fussy.’

Mrs Cooper selected egg mayonnaise and put it on a plate with a napkin.

‘You’ve been wonderful,’ said Frank, taking a bite. ‘The girls haven’t got time,’ he said, indicating Grace and the other nurses, ‘but it makes all the difference having someone like you around.’

‘I’m here for you, Frank. I know what you’re going through.’

She squeezed Frank’s arm and to her surprise, Frank placed his own hand over hers and gave it a tentative pat. Gilda, flat out in bed, stirred slightly, a gurgling sound emanating from her parched mouth. Was that what Grace would call a death rattle?

Frank jerked his hand away and regaled Mrs Cooper with the latest on Gilda’s condition. Her blood gases, her oxygen levels, her white cell count and her urine output – he didn’t spare a thing. Mrs Cooper nodded and made the appropriate noises.

‘Thanks for listening, Mrs C. I live in hope.’

‘So do I, Frank. So do I. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some errands to run. I’ll see you before I go.’

Mrs Cooper sauntered off with her trolley, aware that her rear view looked rather good in the tight black pencil skirt she was wearing today.

‘Where do Frank and Gilda live, by the way?’ she asked Grace before she packed up and left.

Grace flicked through some paperwork.

‘Here we are… up by the golf course. Private road. Nice area.’

‘Oh, yes, I know. Very exclusive.’

‘I think they must have been devoted,’ Grace said. ‘Frank’s here 24/7.’

‘Married forty years, Frank told me. It really makes you believe in the power of love, doesn’t it? In sickness and in health, and all that.’

The next day when Mrs Cooper arrived on the ward, the curtains were partially drawn around Gilda’s bed. Mrs Cooper knew this generally meant death was imminent. The ward had a muted quality and the other patients seemed shaken yet relieved - they were being spared this time.

She found Frank by the bedside, quietly sobbing.

‘Oh, Frank, I’m so sorry.’

Mrs Cooper placed her arms around Frank and pulled him close, making sure she didn’t disturb her hair or make-up. Being partly screened from the rest of the ward at least meant they had some privacy.

‘Mrs C…’ he said, letting himself be embraced. He pulled out a hankie and gave his nose a vigorous blow. ‘The doctors say the end is near. Gilda’s been slipping in and out of a coma all night. Our daughter, Terri, can’t even fly back from New Zealand. She’s got her own life, you see. What with the new baby.’

‘That’s terrible, Frank.’

Mrs Cooper put on a distressed face and hugged Frank again. His tweed jacket was scratchy and smelt of pipe tobacco but she disregarded that. She felt Frank’s tense shoulders drop. If only she was properly alone with him, she could really help him.
Through the gap in the curtains, Mrs Cooper suddenly became aware of a man a couple of beds away staring at her. The same man that she had seen passing the nurses’ office the day before. Bespectacled and in his late middle age, he stood by old Ella’s bed and chomped on an apple. Was he visiting Ella or maybe he was even her husband? Mrs Cooper didn’t think so. She had never seen anyone come to visit Ella and anyhow she felt pretty sure the elderly lady was a Miss, not a Mrs. Shifting her position slightly so as not to alert Frank, she swivelled her head in order to see if there was something catching the man’s attention behind her. There clearly wasn’t. She tried to outstare him while murmuring words of support to Frank. It was insolent of this man to gawp at her like this. What business was it of his? He wasn’t eyeing her up in a complimentary light, she felt certain of that. She continued with her sweet nothings but now her words had a hollow ring to them and even Frank, with his back to the stranger, seemed to pick up on something because soon he extricated himself from Mrs Cooper’s grasp and said he wanted to sit on his own for a bit.

Grace and Mrs Cooper had only been together in the office for a short while when Frank appeared at the door.

‘Grace, I think it’s over.’

Grace rushed to Gilda’s bed, followed by Frank and Mrs Cooper.

‘She’s out of pain now,’ Grace told Frank, confirming the worst.

Grace closed Gilda’s eyes and turned off the oxygen. Mrs Cooper thought how unattractive and ashen death made people look unlike in the films, and that she hoped no-one would ever see her in a similar state.

‘I’ll leave you with Gilda,’ she told Frank.

‘No... Stay with me, Mrs Cooper. I can’t bear to be here on my own right now.’

Mrs Cooper held Frank’s hand and distasteful as she found it, kept him company as they gazed at Gilda’s inert body for the last time.

‘Gilda might be gone but I’ll look after you now, Frank.’

With her free hand, she pulled Frank’s damp cheek towards hers so that his tears mingled with her own crocodile ones.

Later, while Frank was filling in the necessary forms, Mrs Cooper decided to take a breather in the hospital canteen. It had been an emotional morning and she needed to get away from Mary Seacole’s fetid atmosphere. She deserved a treat – a cappuccino and maybe a doughnut would be nice, the hospital not seeming to have heard of low fat. The unblinking stranger had bothered her too. Who was he and what did he want? He seemed vaguely familiar. Maybe he’d just wandered in off the psychiatric ward. Perhaps it was as simple as that.

She sat herself down at a spare table, thankful that food smells had replaced those of talcum powder and disinfectant ubiquitous on Mary Seacole. She was perusing one of the magazines from her trolley and spooning milky froth into her mouth when she became aware of being watched again. He was there, this time standing opposite her, over by the snack machine. He held a plastic cup in one hand but raised his little finger and pointed it directly at Mrs Cooper. Now she could be in no doubt he was pestering her.

If this harassment continued, Mrs Cooper thought, she would call security. Get this creep thrown out. She worked here for heaven’s sake. She was a valuable voluntary member of staff.

Then she remembered where she had seen him before. At Long Meads Hospice, five years ago. There she had met George Cooper, caring for his wife with terminal cancer. Six months later, Mrs Fox had become Mrs Cooper. This man had worked as a night nurse, she remembered now, and an unhelpful one at that. A chip on his shoulder.

She flipped through her magazine but the words no longer seemed to make any sense. It was as useless as trying to read in a dentist’s waiting room. She sensed him coming towards her and felt beads of perspiration break out above her upper lip. She tried to stay calm – he was nothing. A shadow fell across her page. He stood over her.

‘I’m watching you Mrs Cooper,’ he said, rapping his knuckles on the Formica table. ‘I’m watching you.’

Louise has made some short story sales both in the UK and abroad. She comes from London but she is currently living in Seville where she is researching the world of flamenco dance for a screenplay. 


  1. I loved this story - wish I'd written it. A delight to read.

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