“I’ll need you to drive,” said Dave when they arrived at his Audi. “I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make.”
He dialled his phone as he got in. Geoffrey started the car.
“Where are we going?” Geoffrey asked. Dave said,
“Hello, Honey? ‘S’me. I’m going to be later than I thought tonight. I’ve left Geoff’s, but have to duck into the hospital to check on some patients. Yeah, you’re right, a rest after yesterday would be good, but something fascinating has come up. I know, I’m sorry – you watch it and catch me up. Thanks. Love you too.”
“Hospital, why?” said Geoffrey.
“Hello, is that Sally? It’s Dave, Dave Rogers. How’s the evening shift? Mmhmm. Listen, a bit of an unexpected request, but I’ve got a visitor I want to take through ICU. This evening. As in, say, five to ten minutes time. We’re heading over there now. He’s got some fascinating new ideas about prognostication. Yeah, no, it’s all above board, it’s just we were talking about some really interesting stuff at a meeting this afternoon, and I thought it’d be opportune to get an initial feeling for it in our award winning Intensive Care Unit. Yeah, I’ll fix up the paperwork. No, we won’t even touch any patients, don’t need to see records or anything like that. We’ll be out from under your feet in no time. Think of it as a diplomatic tour. Yes, I can never resist you either. Thanks. See you shortly.”
Dave hung up and looked at Geoffrey. Evening was falling, and the streets were busy with Sunday night filmgoers, clubbers and diners. Car lights flickered across Dave’s face.
“Are you asking me what I think you are?” said Geoffrey.
“Yep. We have some seriously sick people in ICU at the moment, and only one of them is my patient. I’ll take you through the ward and you do your vision thing, and then tell me who dies when. You up to that?”
Geoffrey slowed the car.
“That’s incredibly unethical,” he said.
“That’s what I said. Highly unprofessional. Can you cope?”
Geoffrey pulled up at a set of lights.
“I thought you were one of the good guys,” he said.
“I am usually, almost as much a stickler for the rules as you. But these are extraordinary circumstances. Pull over when you get round the corner.”
Geoffrey found a spot and pulled in.
“I don’t know if this shit is true,” said Dave, “but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to test it. And right now when no-one is expecting it is the best time. Could you imagine if I made a formal request to investigate paranormal activity in ICU? I’d be laughed out of the hospital. Or worse, if that got out to the media. You’d be a dead man, and don’t even think of snaring Lucy. Only you and I can know about it until we have firm evidence, and we take it from there.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“We’ll keep it separate. We go in, I say nothing, you write down your predication of time and date on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope marked with the bed number. If and when the patient dies we can open the envelope to see if it matches.”
Geoffrey watched a pair of policemen stroll past the car, their jackets puffed and their belts heavy with equipment. Their shadows circled them as they walked past a light post.
“At this stage there is no real control we can run to verify your gift,” said Dave, “so if we get a good level of accuracy, it will look very real. What do you think?”
Geoffrey looked at Dave with a contorted smile. His narrow features and sharp eyes were accentuated in the darkened cabin of the car. He tapped the steering wheel.
“So you have no access to the information until the patient dies?” he said.
“If the patient dies,” said Dave. “if he or she dies after leaving ICU I doubt I could get access to information about their passing.”
“I won’t do your patient. Even knowing what you know puts you in a conflict of interest.”
“But me? If I’m caught masquerading as some sort of hospital consultant, what will happen then? Do I get struck off from my profession?”
“I can contain it. ICU has a small staff at night, and no-one needs to know anything. We’ll be in and out.”
“How many patients?”
“Twenty. Nineteen excluding mine. As many of them as you can do.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Everything. Heart, lungs, pneumonia, age, car accidents, you name it, it’s a real mixed bag at the moment. Which is good for our purposes. You won’t see much though. They’re all covered up with blankets and tubes.”
Geoffrey paused and looked at Dave.
“I’ve just realised, when you said car accidents. You saw Slabs in the car yesterday. That must have been awful.”
Dave gave let out a heavy breath.
“It was,” he said. “One look at him and I knew he was gone.”
“I’m sorry to drag you into this,” said Geoffrey. “It was selfish of me. You should be at home, resting with your wife, watching your TV Show or whatever it was.”
“Don’t be sorry. We can repay Slabs by doing this.”
Geoffrey looked out into the street. To his right stood tall buildings lit in a chequerboard of office lights. On the left a grand fig extended from its park base over the bitumen footpath. He turned to Dave and said,
“You’ve always been very trustworthy, Dave. I’ve never seen your dark side.”
“Didn’t have one til tonight. We’re both different people now.”
Geoffrey started the car and pulled out.
“The car park’s just up on the right,” said Dave. “Head in, with my key card. We’ll go to my rooms and get paper and envelopes then head next door to the wards.”
They drove down the concrete ramp and in through the boom gate. Geoffrey parked the car near the lift and Dave pressed the button for the ninth floor. In the confines of the lift Dave said,
“The question is how best to use the information you can supply. For example, if you see a huge number all dying in the same time, it means-“
The lift bell sounded and the doors opened. Dave held the door open for a Philippine cleaner who wheeled a trolley full of toilet paper, plastic bags and brushes into the lift. Dave remained silent and looked at the lift numbers climb. At six the cleaner got out.
‘-it means we have a potential pandemic on our hands, and that will allow hospitals to prepare. We wouldn’t have to isolate like we did for the COVID-19 fiasco when the world was caught short supplied.”
The lift stopped at the ninth floor. The two men strode out and across a wide area where cloth covered waiting lounges were spread in even formations on a reddish carpet. Dave’s office was down a corridor, but he headed the receptionist area and gathered a handful of envelopes and a pad of paper.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We’ll go to four and walk through to the hospital from there.”
After wending their way through a maze of polished vinyl flooring and chalk-white walls Geoffrey found himself at the crowded reception desk for the Intensive Care Unit. Banks of computer screens lining the workbench competed with tiers of papers, files and folders. Behind was a wall of shelves filled with files, and a white board with patient and doctor names in black handwriting.
Dave went behind the desk and inspected a file. When a woman arrived dressed in blue hospital scrubs he said,
“Hi Sally, thanks for helping out. This is Geoffrey Hanson, the specialist I mentioned on the phone. We’ll be in and out in a flash. We don’t need to look at any records or conduct any examination. It’s just a quick FIFO look at the ICU, so I can continue my discussions about new prognostic techniques in post-traumatic treatment. We’ll get gowned up and get in and out, toute de suite.”
He handed Geoffrey a threadbare gown the colour of dried egg, and Geoffrey watched how Dave put on his, to make sure he looked like he knew what he was doing. He tied it behind the back and put on the mask he was given. Just as Dave indicated where they should walk he said,
“Dave, thank you.”
“For?” Dave said.
“For not laughing at me. For believing enough to do this.” Geoffrey swept his arm about the wards. Dave smiled, and led him into the ICU.
His first impression was how blue it all was. Walls were either a pale blue, or deeper, like the ocean depths. Shoals of blue and grey machines were stacked about the rooms like rock faces, and blue and coloured lights blinked like tropical fish in a huge aquarium. Tubes and wires hung kelp like across coral crags, with bloated fluid sacks like plastic flotsam suspended above. The air was saccharine and an electronic beeping echoed about the spaces with a mechanical life affirming regularity. Secreted within the caverns of machinery and crenelated tubing and swathed in blue cotton blankets, patients lay as still as starfish, timid and dependent on the protection of their grotto.
The two men shuffled towards bed A1. In it, a very old man with peeling wallpaper for skin lay almost obliterated by a ventilator that pushed a steady pressure of oxygen into overworked lungs. Geoffrey studied him, wrote a time and date on the first piece of paper, folded it and inserted it into an envelope which he sealed and marked with bed number and the date of the visit.
They moved around a bank of measuring equipment like scuba divers in a cave, and paused next to a woman in bed A2. She was young compared to A1, and lay with her head turned to one side on the crisp pillow. A scab was exposed on her neck. Geoffrey wrote, inserted and sealed the envelope, and they moved on to bed A3.
A3 held a young man with tubes emanating from various points beneath the bedclothes. Geoffrey noticed a colostomy bag suspended from the metal railing on the bed side, filled with murky brown effluent. He studied the man for a while, at his head crowned in gauze, a tumescent bruising on one half of the face, a limb encased in rigid plaster. Again Geoffrey recorded his vision of time and date, and sealed it in the envelope. It was, he felt, like sealing the man’s fate.
They moved from patient to patient amongst the grey and blue banks of machinery. The sound of their robes was like blown sand and their steps on the vinyl floor like water drops on stone. There were old men and women with faces more shrunken than eels and lips the colour of clam shells. Some were swaddled in a net of plastic tubing, others more exposed but no less vulnerable. There were younger patients, blotchy faced and wheezing, one with short sharp breaths and hands that moved constantly as if riven with pain. A neonate in an incubator lay red and weedy on a blue pad. A woman with a massive scar across her shaven head. Nurses in scrubs and gowns moved smoothly about the wards inspecting charts and dials, adjusting tabs and doses, like gropers measuring territory.
Geoffrey tired as he plied his maudlin trade along the wards. He felt guilty as he examined each patient and conjured a vision of their spent lives. He was an imposter, overlording their meagre fortunes with a forced detachment. With each envelope he shut, a bile grew in his belly. He was a watchman of the underworld sealing their fates. He was a voyeur of the end, a menial in the thrall of a heavy demand. He had no purpose being there. He was an amateur in a slew of professionals, each of whom could far better facilitate their patients’ futures than his feeble imaginings. He did nothing. He was a recordist, an archivist, and not a participant in the wellbeing of the patients. Unlike the staff, who worked with intricate care backed by years of training, he was an interloper, a dilettante, a bland arriviste.
He grew hot in his mask gown and perspiration oozed from his forehead. He began to feel queasy and light headed. Before they reached the end of the ward he whispered,
“I’ve got to stop now, and might need to sit down.”
Dave led him to the exit and took his gown and mask from him.
“Just head out into the lobby area, there’s a seat out there. I’ll drop these off and join you.”
Geoffrey paced towards the lobby and sat quickly on the padded bench by the hospital window. He shut his eyes and willed his unease to subside. After a while he heard Dave’s voice.
“You did well, for a desk jockey.”
Geoffrey snorted a breathy laugh but did not open his eyes.
“Does it tire you out, being on the wards?” he said.
“Some days. But it’s not always so intense. My time is broken up between surgery, rooms and bed visits. But tell me, does it tire you out, looking at people in the way you do?” asked Dave.
Geoffrey breathed in deeply and opened his eyes slowly. Looking at the lime lino on the lobby he said,
“I don’t think so. I’m completely wrecked, but it’s been a pretty traumatic weekend all over. So I can’t say if my tiredness is just the weekend and lack of sleep, or being drained of some weird psychic energy. I don’t feel like it is. They are just visions. It’s all very new.”
“Thank you for persevering,” said Dave.
Geoffrey handed him the bunch of envelopes with the dates and times secured inside. He said,
“I know we said we wouldn’t say anything about each one, but I’ve got to say this. The bub in the crib – he’ll live to one hundred and five.”
Dave bent backwards and let out an enormous laugh.
“Good on you, Geoff. That’s brilliant. The paediatrician is a mate of mine. I wish I could tell him that.” He laughed again. “A hundred and five. I don’t think I’ll be waiting round for that envelope.”
“I almost didn’t do him,” said Geoffrey, “but he sort of jumped out at me, before I could look away.”
He looked at Dave, who yawned and said,
“Let’s get you home. It’s 10.30pm.”
Geoffrey rose from the bench, rubbed his eyes and stretched.
“Let’s not,” he said. “Let’s go hunting instead for my hobo.”
“What?” said Dave.
“I predicted he’d expire at 11pm tonight. We have half an hour to find him. He won’t have moved too far from the bus stop. You up for a search in the back alleys at night?”
Dave sighed, and said “S’pose we might as well.”
Dave pulled over next to the bus stop and turned on the GPS. The two of them scoured the map for back lanes and narrow streets.
“I count a dozen or more in a one kilometre radius,” said Dave.
Geoffrey was looking at his iPhone.
“There’s a liquor store about two hundred metres down the street. That’s the way he went when he left me last night.”
Dave did a U-turn across the empty street and the car sidled down the road, the two men searching beneath the darkened canopy of the shop awnings for any sign of the man’s passing. Past the closed liquor shop with its loud placards of deals on grog they turned right, into a narrow street that wound downhill through variegated blocks of beige apartments with manicured shrubs at ground level. Rows of cars slept bumper to bumper on the kerb, twinkling in the street lights.
They paused at the entrance to an unlit laneway. Geoffrey let down his window and peered into the funnelled darkness. He got out, and walked into it. There were garbage bins and garage doors and rickety paling fences. Nothing in the lane matched what he had envisaged the night before. He turned back. As he got into the car he said,
“No sign of him there.”
“It’s only 10.55,” said Dave. “He could still be on the move.”
“There’s a question,” said Geoffrey. “What do we do if we find him alive?”
“Two things,” said Dave. “We keep him alive and we discount your visions.”
They moved on, and turned into a street which meandered through rows of neatly kept terraces. At a roundabout, a pub was just closing up, with the last stragglers flowing out the doors. A taxi stopped to pick some up, and a person began walking along the path. They tuned left at the roundabout and slowly followed the street until they came to another laneway. Again Geoffrey got out and walked along the cracked bitumen surface, using his phone light to guide him. Again, there was no result, no jacketed man in the weeds and broken kerbside, no match for his recollection.
They repeated this search three times and Dave suggested calling it a day. They drove down the next laneway, the car headlights splashing across the rows of grey fence palings, roll-a-doors and swinging gates. A cat ran across the lights, its eyes flashing green as it looked at the car.
“There!” said Geoffrey. He pointed out of the windscreen to the right, where a black bundle of rags lay dumped on the side of the road. An empty glass bottle flashed in the car light. It was exactly how he remembered it. He got out, followed by Dave, and was immediately reminded of the man’s odour.
Close up, they looked at the hobo as he lay on the gravelled edge of the lane. He was wrapped in his greasy jacket, and his head lay on a stone step outside a chipped green gate. His eyes were open and still. His mouth echoed without sound like a sink hole in the grime of the man’s face. The vodka bottle had fallen from podgy fingers and stood upright like a beacon marking the body.
“Ooo, he’s rank,” said Dave, as he bent over the man to make a close inspection. Geoffrey watched fascinated as Dave tested for signs of life. He shoved the man, but the body barely registered the provocation. He held the man’s wrist for a pulse and confirmed it did not beat by placing a finger on his neck. He shone his phone torch in the man’s eyes and saw only the pinned black depth of his absence. And when he lifted the man’s hips with his shoe a foetid stink of shit erupted from under him. He stood up, wiping his hand on his handkerchief.
“You could try CPR,” he said “but you wouldn’t get far. I’ll call an ambulance.”
He dialled a number. “Ambulance, and police. There’s a man, a street person, in a laneway – Geoff, what’s it called?”
Geoffrey checked his phone. It was 11.10pm.
“Rigby Lane,” he said.
“Rigby Lane, off Chesterfield Ave.” He gave his details, and directions, all the while staring at Geoffrey intensely. Geoffrey saw him back lit in the car light, his features in shadow and an aura about his tall frame.
“We’ll back out and wait for the ambulance at the entrance,” said Dave.
They stood in silence in the full glare of a street light next to a red brick pillar. When the ambulance and a police car arrived Dave waved them down and they stopped next to him, their red lights flashing about the rows of terraces. A paramedic and a police officer got out and Dave explained what they had found, pointing up to the lane as he spoke. A light went on in an apartment and a woman ventured out in a dressing gown. A second police officer spoke to her and she retreated back inside.
Dave accompanied the paramedics up the lane with the stretcher. Geoffrey watched them in the dark as they lifted the corpse on to the mattress and covered it over with a cloth. Having loaded the body, the ambulance left. Dave and Geoffrey stayed to give a statement to the police. Dave said they had tried to take a short cut along the lane, but had come across the body. One of the police officers breathalysed them both and then left.
“That’s enough dead bodies for a weekend,” said Dave. “Let’s go home. We can talk tomorrow.”
Geoffrey checked his phone again and grimaced.
“Not quite,” he said.
“What do you mean?” said Dave.
Geoffrey looked at him despondently.
“You can open the envelope for A3.”
His friend was about to say something but he continued,
“It’s the bloke who had the accident – with the plastered leg and the colostomy bag.”
“Fuck,” said Dave. “What time is it?”
“11.47,” said Geoffrey. “My note says 11.44.”
Dave reached into the car and extracted the envelope from the car and tore it open. There in Geoffrey’s handwriting was 11.44pm, and today’s date. He rang the hospital.
“Hello, Sally? Oh, hi Morgan, it’s Dr Rogers. I was just ringing Sal –what’s up? Okay, no, you finish off that, I’ll speak to her tomorrow, not urgent. I’m sorry you have to undergo that. Tell me quickly, what bed it was. Thanks. You go. All the best.”
Dave hung up and looked straight into Geoffrey’s eyes.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said.
“So there was Sally, and another person, I presume a doctor, who was holding those heart pads –“
“Defibrillator,” said Dave.
“- and one of the nurses we saw while we were there,” said Geoffrey. “The man was in the middle, with his whole chest exposed and his body a bit askew on the bed.”
The two men stood staring at each other in the cone of yellow light that hung from the lamp above them. The air was night-clear and silent, save for the distant murmur of traffic some way away from them. Geoffrey leaned forward and embraced Dave in a tight hug, and tears streamed down his cheeks.
“It’s been a terrible weekend,” he sobbed. “I thought it was going so well with the footy and all and then Slabs happened and all this, and the burden of it is so heavy and so frank. I don’t know what it all means.”
Dave held his friend in the aura of the street light as he cried, and the night remained impermeable to his sadness and the housing stout and dogged. He wept in unbridled sobs and the weight of the weekend was shaken from him, and the hardship of the hospital diminished. Images from the night fired in his mind, the dead and diseased, the living streets, cars reflecting lights, the shroud of carpeted manhood in the gutter and the red alarm of the ambulance. He thought of Lucy, a distant beacon of promise amid the morass of death he had witnessed.
After a while, the tears subsided with long and heavy breaths and he slowly released his arms from Dave’s shoulders. He stepped back and wiped his eyes with his cuff.
“Sorry,” he said. He looked away to the placid rows of terraces with their overly sculptured gardens, and inwardly summoned a spark of resolve, to carry him to tomorrow.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve got to figure out what to do about Tuesday’s date with Lucy. I can’t do what we said, and just discard what I’ll see. But I really want to see her.”
Dave said gently, “We’ve done enough for one night. Let’s get you home. We can talk about it in the morning.”