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The Ward Singer

by Craig Jordan-Baker

Yes, she volunteered at the local hospital, singing the hits of the 1980's to stroke victims every Tuesday and Friday. Just after 1 o’clock lunch, she would bulge from the lift with her equipment and squeak left towards F Wing. The nurses’ confetti of smiles and chat fluttered around her as they moved from ward to ward: Hello Bel!...Play that one from last week…Shannon is teary today…Non-stop non-stopnonstop…Sorry about the mess in Ward D…Mrs J is lucid for once.

   F wing had four wards, and Bel always began with the middle C, for no other reason than this was where it had first played on her first day. Apparently, a patient had spent the long night ranting about Phil Collins and ‘Something Happened on the Way to Heaven’. Bel said that, yes, she knew the song, and set herself up on a stool in the white ward’s white centre. When she jiggled over the opening riff and strummed the A Flat Major 7th, a previously twitching patient stilled and raised her thinly-haired head:

 

♪ We had a life, we had a love ♫

♫ But you don't know what you've got 'til you lose it (Ooo, ooo)♪

♪ Well that was then, and this is now…♫

 

   This must be the patient the nurses had whispered of, she had thought: As Bel played it through, coyly, but with enough energy to hit the notes, the woman’s eyes widened and her tawnythin hair lifted, as if by a breeze. Though when the song was over and Bel segued into ‘Lady in Red’, the patient began to toss, just as before.

   “Mrs Poutouli, what can I do for you?” A preternaturally chirpy nurse strolled over to the fidgeting form by the window. The patient moved her tacky sagging, mouth up and down, uttering the tones terribly ill: gung; hoow; oose; naaa.  She raised her left hand and with a three-fingered point, gestured towards the plastic jug of orange liquid on the overbed table.

    “Ah yes, let’s get you something to drink.”

   After Ward C, Bel worked her way to D, looped back to A and then finally, Ward B. She would have played the same songs in each, but the nurses’ constant movement made her shameful of repetition, so for each room she swapped an old song for a new. Bel felt happiest playing Ward D, because she had loosened, but her performance in B was a struggle, as she felt that the work was already done, before it had ended. 

   This was the footfall of life, but though she had been doing this for some time, she maintained interest, knowing the job required skills other musicians did not cultivate. For example, against the moans and gurgling profanities, Bel had found the perfect volume where she would neither drown out her patients, nor be drowned by them. It did not matter if she was singing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, ‘Turn Back Time’ or ‘Love is a Battlefield’, the effect was the same. The audience, she told herself, had a right to be present, even if they did not know she even existed.

   As she settled into a routine, slow and certain things had, on reflection, come to her notice. What first appeared to her as chaos on the ward was nothing of the kind. The patients radiated chaos, it was true, but the staff had a slowness to their panic and a mildness in their sighs which told her all was under control. No, a ward was not simply a room with beds and machines and the sick and the dying and the dead: Each ward had a subtle topography. Bel had noticed that often, those who died were placed in the middle of the room, but those by the windows, more often than not, were discharged, having at least partly rebuilt their crumbled cognition. Why this was, was unclear. Perhaps it was the mild sunlight that would grapple onto the windowsill in the afternoons, or the vista of the city outside, squat and formless.

   Bel only thought about these things when she was not there, because thinking about something as you did it led to carelessness: Either a thing was done, or it was not done. Reflections where always for after, at home; a small flat in the staved suburbs. There, she sometimes wondered why she only ever played to stroke victims. Was it her repertoire? At any given time, she thought, there might be a dozen musicians in the General performing to different ailments: Fat men playing disco in oncology, a Prog duo in neurology, a lone little girl singing a capella folksongs in geriatrics. Or perhaps it was just the stroke wards that needed music, needed pop songs with a rock tinge from the 1980s.

Was she missing something? Was she alone, or part of a large band of unseen but ardent labour? 

 

***

 

    ‘Gerroff! You…bastard. You bloodly, oh, bloody bastard. Bloody bastard shit! Help meeeee…!’

   Avril was being difficult. Bel had just folded out her stool and unpacked her instruments when Avril vomited up a tuna and mayo sandwich back onto her plate. When the nurses rushed to help her, whipping round the curtain as a shield of dignity, Avril sensed only the shadow of destruction upon her:

   ‘Oh, you shits, you fffff; you brutes. No! Mammy! Dad, Dad tell them, No!’

   Bel had seen her this way before, whenever that wrinkle of a body needed help. Avril would scream and cry and spout the curse words and the naughty things she had heard whilst pretending to be asleep in the 1940s. She never listened to Bel’s music, and she had been placed squarely in the middle of the ward. Bel imagined Avril at night, sweating and swearing and filled with the scent of doom and cold urine.

   Behind the curtain, the noises quelled and Bel passed an opening smile around Ward C. She began with a softly arpeggiated rendition of ‘Eye of the Tiger’, and she caught herself thinking that played this way, the song was unfamiliar, even to herself. Then:

 

♫ So many times it happens too fast♪

♪ You trade your passion for glory ♫

♫ Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past… ♪

 

   Some songs are this way; the overfamiliar being initially alien. But then, once you hear a song for what it is, you are relived, you calm, you attune. When this happened and uncomprehending eyes became focussed, Bel felt freer, for it was the song and not the player that was present. Today, the new woman focussing on her was Shannon Nacullian, someone who had been, auspiciously she thought, placed next to the large window at the end of the ward. Shannon mouthed along, sticky-lipped and hollow-eyed, directly at Bel.

   When the song was over, Shannon half-smiled and patted the bed in applause, her other hand contorted beneath her breasts. About two weeks ago, she had suffered a volley of small strokes, which must have added up to a large stroke, considered Bel. On first arriving, Shannon had been inconsolable at the shock of near-death and partial paralysis. She was attended most days by a fat pale boy Bel supposed was Shannon’s son, but despite his encouragements, his awkward kisses and his constant nodding at her, Shannon could only adopt a method of mourning, as though her life was over before it had ended.

   At first, all she wanted was to move her left hand, just to move her hand so she could reach a drink to quench herself.

   One day soon after, Shannon could move her hand.

   Then, all she wanted was to use the toilet, just take a shit or a piss without someone there to steady her, to be able to relieve herself.

   And, one day soon after, Shannon could take a piss on her own.

   After this, all she wanted was to walk, just a few steps, just walk a little down the corridor, how great that would be. And of course, soon after she could walk a few steps. This was a torrent of success, but each time, Shannon was disappointed and wept, infant like.

 

***

 

So, it was a Tuesday, and Bel bulged from the lift and squeaked left down the hallway. She was early and so took her time, observing the oscillations and celerities of the General. The hallways, gardens and shops of hospitals are the least normal of places, she considered; a mixture of limbo, circus and soap opera. Once, she had seen someone dressed as a giant molar who was giving out samples of toothpaste and armed with a large cardboard toothbrush. After a while, the massive tooth trotted into WH Smith to buy cigarettes, but the costume was so large that it kept knocking over promotional placards and sweeping racks of chewing gum onto the floor. The shop assistant demanded the molar wait outside whilst being served, but things ended in disappointment when I.D. was required, and the molar patted itself down embarrassedly before managing a defeated shrug. Sometimes there just aren’t enough cavities.

   Bel hummed her melodies as she dawdled. Today, she planned to try something new. Though bound to her regular repertoire, over the weekend she had been practicing, trying to sing in the melted-down way of wedding singers, something that managed high energy, but was never sharp, never grating.

   As she turned the corner leading down into the stroke wards, Bel noticed the fat paleness of Shannon’s son, trundling towards her. Beside him was Shannon herself, shuffling half-steady and doodled over with lines of intense effort. Both their eyes were fixed on the floor, watching each of Shannon’s steps as though they were a novelty, as though they were someone else’s. Bel smiled as she passed them, though went unnoticed.

   Her pace slowed as she approached the wards’ windowed double doors. With her shoulder, she eased one door open and made her way through, equipment dragging behind. The middle bed, Avril’s bed, was empty, and the whiteboard holding her name, blank. Quietly, thinking all the time that she should not be thinking, Bel moved to the centre, began to set up.

   She sat down on her stool. She picked up her guitar from its stand, felt the strings, the curve of the body. A door was opening. Shannon and her son. Bel told herself she should not be thinking; that something is simply done, or not done:

 

♫ We are strong ♪
♪ No one can tell us we're wrong ♫
♫ Searching our hearts for so long… ♪

 

   She was thinking whilst doing. And yes, it would lead to carelessness. But what were the promises of pop tunes with a rock tinge? Was the reality of Shannon Nacullian; hand-held, step-shattered and elbow-holstered, not the outhouse of all those promises?

   Bel sang and thought about the nameless gargles and mangled titterings that were the ward’s own music: gung; hoow; oose; naaa. As she crooned, she wondered if that music had now become hers, if these tones were now, for her, a hardware-store song, a birthday song, a karaoke song: Something which needed to be made tolerable to many, though loved by none.

  Perhaps Bel should have smoked on her window ledge as she reflected on these things, perhaps she should have drunk dark wine at her low sitting-room table as she pondered. These things though, she did not do. As Shannon was helped into her bed by far window, Bel finished one song and went formlessly into the next.

   Later, Bel stood in the middle of her kitchen with its sticky chequered lino. Her tea was stewed, and she was thinking. And it occurred to her that it was always difficult to think this way, after the music, because while the work was done, somehow it had not yet ended.

Craig Jordan-Baker has published fiction in New Writing, Text, Potluck and elsewhere. His drama has been widely performed in UK, including his adaptation of Beowulf and he has dramatic work commissioned from The National Archives, The Booth Museum of Natural History and the Theatre Royal Brighton. He is currently finishing his first novel, 'Of Islands. 'Craig lives in Brighton and is senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Brighton.