by Suzanne Conboy-Hill
‘I don’t have time for you to die,’ Sarah grunted, delivering a hefty thwack to the chest of the man with the grey face and bluish lips. She called out to the room, ‘Action stations: fluids, paddles, let’s go everyone.’ The new SHO bounded over; a leggy youngster with arms like string, he seemed to be everywhere at once connecting things, inserting things, extracting samples. In short order, the monitor beeped and a green light hopped encouragingly across the screen. Sarah relaxed, surveying the aftermath of the resuscitation which her SHO and one of the nurses were already clearing up. She would wait a moment, see the chap properly stabilised and then she would leave.
Sarah was good at waiting: waiting for test results, for bloods or fluids or the right dose of something to be delivered, for patients in crisis on their way by ambulance, for relatives to give good news to – or bad. She was single-minded and dedicated. She was also, it had to be said, single. That thought hovered for a moment and flipped back and forth between her well-rehearsed rationalisations and the sharp dig-in-the-ribs of regret. She elbowed it out, ‘How’s his gases, Sadhu?’
‘They’re good; he’s good.’ Sadhu grinned, eyes glistening with pride and excitement at his part in a successful outcome.
‘And so were you.’ Sarah smiled back at him, remembering her own reaction to those early successes. When you’re starting out, nothing quite beats pulling someone back from the brink.
‘Off to the seminar now,’ she said, aiming for nonchalance. ‘I’ll be back for a handover about nine.’ She glanced at the clock, there was probably time give her hair a bit of attention, scrub herself up a bit.
Standing at the mirror in the locker room a few moments later, Sarah told herself she always did that at the end of a shift, tidied herself up, but it wasn’t true, it was because Narinder was here again. It crossed her mind briefly that he may not have aged particularly well, that he might have put on weight and turned a bit lardy since the time when Thunderclap Newman had Something in the Air and The Beatles played a gig on a rooftop. Thirty years was a long time. Sarah peered at her own reflection to see how she had fared. Eyes a bit on the baggy side; skin good; no sign of a jowl. Even so, those thirty years had stolen something. She let out a whisper of a sigh and pressed her thumbs against her jaw line just below her ears then two finger tips each side near the hair line above, she pulled gently upwards to reveal the ghost of the face Narinder had fallen in love with.
They’d known from the start that what they had was temporary, that it couldn’t last, but when you’re nineteen, twenty-one seems a lifetime away and you ignore it. It’s the sort of tomorrow that’s never going to come. But of course it did, and on Narinder’s twenty first birthday he returned to India to take the wife found for him by his.
They spent their last day together out on the green at the back of the med school; at first holding each other in a grip so tight it hurt almost as much as the reason for it, then gradually letting go until just their fingertips touched. Like new lovers, shy and coy but moving apart, not together. Narinder left first. He stood in front of her as she sat on the grass, arms around her knees looking up at him. ‘Don’t wait,’ he said eventually, his eyes on the roped-off wicket in the middle of the green and not on her at all, ‘and please be happy.’
Now suddenly he was back, come to deliver the post grad seminar on emergency medicine. Did he know she worked here? Had he scheduled this venue particularly in the hope of seeing her? Setting aside the fact that he hadn’t let her know, she grabbed at an old lipstick, scrubbed some on and wiped it off again. She squinted at her hair and rooted through her bag for a brush to rake at the bird’s nest that had spent its day under a theatre hat, finally yanking the lot upwards and anchoring it with a large silver clip. After a final glance in the slightly distorted mirror, she blew out a long breath and took off down the corridor towards the conference centre.
The foyer was full of people heading away from the lecture hall; what had happened – she couldn’t have missed it, surely? But a notice on the door showed a change of time due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’. Damn! She pushed on anyway; she should apologise for being late. But what if he actually wasn’t expecting her, how stupid would that look? But what if he was? And then she was through the door and taking in the scene – silhouettes at the far end of the lecture theatre as people crossed in front of the slide projector, one or two hangers-on making the most of an opportunity to impress and bag themselves a prestigious contact; Narinder, elegant and graceful as ever, immaculate in a dark suit and black turban. She wondered if he was still able to wear his kirpan with its gold hilt and curled blade. She remembered how surprised she’d been to see it the first time and how glamorous it felt to be with a man who carried such an exotic item. No glamour now of course, after so many years of dealing with the aftermath of people’s encounters with less principled blades. Sarah watched herself moving down the steps, saw Narinder look up as she approached, heard herself begin to tell him who she was.
‘Sarah!’ That voice, still soft and rich. A gold-ringed hand reached out; she took it and they stood, fingers lightly held, the feel of them familiar. She wondered if they would kiss because everyone did these days, didn’t they? Old friends especially. But they weren’t old friends; they were something else, something other. Sarah held herself still and waited to see what he would do.
He raised her fingers to his lips, seeming to watch her over their hands; to be looking for something. She watched him back, trying to penetrate the mannered veneer and uncover a hint of what she might still mean to him. For a moment, his pupils widened and she felt pulled towards him, then they snapped back and he released her hand.
‘We should leave,’ he said, ‘Before we outstay our welcome.’ He nodded towards the man lugging a vacuum cleaner through the doors at the back and the woman wielding a duster and spray over the lectern. He glanced at his watch, ‘Look at the time! I expect you have family waiting for you, I know I do.’ He leaned forward a little, ‘And a new grandchild just today – we’re travelling up there now.’
Sarah paused, stilled like a flow of water suddenly become a colloid. After a moment, she lifted her chin and the flow resumed its course, threatened surface eddies contained. ‘Boy or girl?’
‘Our first girl.’
‘You must be very pleased.’
‘We are, although it does make me feel a little old.’ There was a slightly conspiratorial tone to his remark; and self-deprecating as was the way with people who knew they had worn well.
‘I seem to have managed that without grandchildren. Or children for that matter.’ Sarah heard the slightly acidic note in her voice and didn’t know quite how she felt about it being there. She raised a smile, the sort she used to end conversations with patients to whom she’d said everything she could say. ‘I have to get back,’ she said, aiming a nod in the general direction of the ICU, ‘For a handover.’
‘I know.’ Narinder brought his hands together in a light clasp and waited. Sarah wasn’t sure what ‘I know’ referred to – the routine of handovers or the subtext of her previous comment, so she rummaged in her pockets for a moment to give him space to expand. But he stayed silent so she stepped back, ‘See you then,’ she said.
‘Will it be another thirty years, do you suppose?’ A smile and the hint of a wink.
She considered that for a moment, feeling a shift within, and winked back, ‘Best not hold your breath then,’ she said and waggled her fingers in a small wave as she turned to leave, ‘Be happy.’
© suzanne conboy-hill 2016
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