I put it down to the morphine. A lot of things happened that day that I can’t explain.
The day started badly for me. An early morning slip on the ice caused my shoulder to dislocate (I have a shoulder problem). It was three am on the second day of November and I was on the way to work, at the time I was working nights as a security guard. Not wanting to wake anybody I decided to make my own way to hospital – a fifteen-mile drive. I found that if I pressed my shoulder against the door of the car then the pain subsided enough for my vision to clear. Changing gear was tricky: press the clutch in with my left foot, lift right foot off the accelerator to enable my right leg to hold the wheel steady while my left hand moved the stick. I pulled in to one of the emergency parking bays right in front of the entrance. The pain overtook my natural nervousness about whether I warranted a special parking place. On a weekday, A&E at four am is a desolate place: beige walls, beige chairs, beige carpet, overheated – like a soft-furnished desert at midday. I waited, hunched in a partially vandalised chair for my name to be called. The pain was intense. Eventually I raised my head as footsteps approached.
‘Come on Mr Patient. Do you need a chair or can you walk?’
I stood, wobbled and did my best to smile. ‘I can walk.’
‘Good. Come with me then Mr…’ She checked the front of a red folder ‘Penty. This way please.’
I followed a few paces behind her, marvelling at her jet-black wavy hair that reached all the way to her belt. Did it just grow like that or did she use one of those strange feminine hairdressing devices? I tried to keep my eyes from travelling lower than the extent of her hair.
She stopped and turned. As she did, something happened. Her circular motion caused the edges of her to blur and I saw copies of her pull away then snap back as she stopped. I could see her ID – “Nurse Catrina”. In my pain distorted vision the edges of the name badge had a faint red glow.
‘What do you think?’ She said gesturing left and right. ‘It’s dead around here. Now stop talking, get walking.’
She turned, causing another motion blur and marched on. I hesitated for a couple of seconds then followed. Nurse Catrina took me to a curtain walled cubicle and gestured to a trolley bed.
‘Can you get up there by yourself?’
‘Of course’ I said but failed.
She smiled. I noticed a large plastic flower in her hair. Were nurses supposed to wear things like that?
‘Is that a marigold?’
‘It’s just a hairband.’
She grabbed my arm and helped me onto the bed. This close, her perfume drove away the antiseptic scent of the room.
‘No. In pain.’
She put my red folder into a wire rack and said ‘Doctor will be here in a moment.’
Giving me a smile she swished through the curtain. Her departure caused another motion blur. I groaned. There was no need for stoicism now that the pretty lady had gone. My good arm clutched my bad arm and, with nothing to distract me, the ache brought tears to my eyes.
I waited for fifteen minutes, it may have been longer. I must have lost consciousness at some point because, suddenly, my red folder had gone. The next thing I knew was that my folder was back, in the hands of a short guy in a white coat.
‘Let’s get you some pain relief. What’s your date of birth?’
A metal tray had appeared on a side table. The tray held a syringe, a small bottle and a piece of paper.
‘Eighth of the twelfth, sixty nine.’ I responded automatically. I twisted my head to see if I could read his name badge. ‘Doctor… Jesus?’
‘It’s pronounced Hey-sus. I am doctor Jesus Calaveras. It’s a very common name where I come from. This should take the edge off the pain.’ He had the syringe in his hand and was leaning over me to reach my good arm. I didn’t feel the needle. Nurse Catrina reappeared and taped a piece of cotton wool over the site of the injection.
‘I wish you people would stop vanishing and appearing like that.’ Both ignored me.
‘I see from your file that you’ve been here before. Five times this year. You know what’s coming next don’t you? I’ll give you the gas to breathe then we’ll try and get that shoulder back where it should be. Don’t look so worried, we’ve done this before – nearly as much as you have.’
I knew what was coming next. I had been through it plenty of times. I would breathe in the Nitrous Oxide while they tried, always unsuccessfully, to put my shoulder back in its socket. After a while they’d give me some rohypnol and all of a sudden I’d be sat up in a bed in a different room with my arm strapped to my chest with no concept that any time had passed.
Dr Calaveras took a clear plastic tube from a hook on the wall and attached a disposable mouthpiece. ‘Here,’ he said as he passed it to me. ‘You know what to do.’
This was my favourite bit. I’ve never been much of a narcotics user, as a student I took some acid once just to say that I’d done it and maybe smoked a joint or three. But over the last eighteen months while I have been in and out of hospital I have come to enjoy the combination of inhaling nitrous oxide while sinking into a bed of morphine. I lay back and let them mess with my arm. I knew that my large shoulder muscles would be far too tense to allow the top of my humerus back into its socket.
A long way off in the distance I could hear Dr Calaveras talking to me. ‘I’m afraid your shoulder doesn’t seem to want to go back in today. Looks like we’ll have to give you a general.’ I saw he was holding a syringe. ‘What’s your date of birth?’ Somehow I answered him. I knew what was coming next. The needle would go into my arm and then I would be transported an hour into the future where everything would be sorted out. They’d give me a cup of tea and send me on my way.
This time I got diverted. I awoke and I was walking. This was new. I was pushing through a barrier of thick plastic strips. A white vapour hid my feet. I felt cold. I must have got lost in the hospital. I must be in a refrigerated area. What were they keeping cold? Food? Dead people? The lights were dim and I could hear some asthmatic breathing coming from the other side of the barrier. Once through the plastic curtain I found myself in a small storeroom stacked floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes helpfully labelled “MEAT (CANNED)”. Each box bore a stencilled red arrow to indicate it’s preferred orientation. Whoever stacked the boxes had not paid any attention to these arrows. In the middle of the room, sat on the corner of a box, was a man. He was wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt, jeans and sandals. Over the shirt he wore a pristine white lab coat. On his head he wore a white mesh trilby like a butcher or baker. He had an unshaven rodent-like face, not ratty or weasely but more like a guinea pig if anything. He was smiling.
‘Sorry.’ I said, ‘I’m lost. I am looking for the exit.’
He allowed himself a few rasping breaths before he replied. ‘Take a seat and the exit will come to you.’
I nodded and sat on a box. At the time it seemed like a sensible thing to do. I noticed that he was holding a clipboard and a pen. He appeared to be reading the barcodes on the boxes and ticking them off on his register.
‘Stock taking?’ I asked him. I often fall back on pointing out the obvious when I don’t know what to say. He didn’t seem to mind.
‘Just bringing a bit of order to the chaos. Working one side of the equilibrium.’
‘Entropy.’ He said and returned to his task.
‘So,’ I said, ‘have you seen those South Americans on A&E?’
He lowered his clipboard and looked straight at me, ‘Jesus Calaveras and Catrina Calaveras. They are brother and sister. It’s important that you remember them.’
‘Remember them? You make it sound like they are dead.’
‘They are.’ He stood and started checking a tower of boxes in the middle of the room.
‘Ghosts?’ I said, ‘Restless spirits? Are you sure? I don’t know a lot about the supernatural but I don’t think they hang around in hospitals giving injections and fixing shoulders.’
‘They are not ghosts.’ He put down the clipboard and gave me the look that teachers reserve for the denser end of the class, ‘They are a layer of perception. More like memories. I pushed this layer between you and the regular hospital staff because, as I said, it’s important that you remember them.’
‘They looked quite young, what happened to them?’
‘There was an accident ten years ago. On the river, not far from here.’
Suddenly I felt sick. I slumped. Ten years ago I had just started work for the North Yorkshire police as a consultant. I was supposed to train the officers in data retrieval techniques, show them how to identify and analyse patterns. A few weeks into the job I was getting a ride in the back of a patrol car when the call came through that there had been an accident involving a tourist boat on the river. Bodies were still being pulled of the shallow water when we arrived at the scene. Seven in all. This was my first and only encounter with violent death and it was a shocking experience. The faces and the smell haunted me for months. I offered to help with identifying the bodies. As it turned out five were carrying passports and I was only needed to trace two of them, a young Hispanic couple. I tried and I tried. I was still trying long after my contract ran out with the police. Eventually I gave up. The databases and information silos that I put my faith into had failed me; there was just no trace of them anywhere.
I realised the strange man was talking to me again, ‘You’ll be on your way soon. Don’t forget. Don’t forget.’
There was no sense of transition. There never is with those hospital anaesthetics. Suddenly I was in a clean room, in a clean bed, right arm strapped up in a sling with a nurse leaning over me, ‘Mr Penty. Back with the living I see.’
I tried to reply but I think I just made a noise. I was staring at her. She had the plastic flower in her hair but she was English and, according to her name badge, called Helen Carter.
‘The doctor will be along in a few minutes to check you out before we let you go. I’ve brought you a cup of tea, vending machine I am afraid. Oh, and don’t forget to put the magazine back that you took from the waiting room.’
She dropped a magazine onto the bed within range of my good arm and left the room.
I stared at the magazine, a travel supplement from the Sunday Telegraph. It was open at a cultural piece about the “Day of the Dead” celebrations in Mexico City. The article was centred on a family and the shrines they maintained in their house to remember their dead relatives. There was a picture of the father of the family holding up a photo of his son and daughter. The text explained that he was unable to put them in the family shrine because they had been missing for years. Both were medical students, studying in Paris after receiving scholarship funding from the Mexican government. The people in the photo were unmistakable.
I didn’t wait for the doctor. I knew what he would say. I had been there before and anyway, I had a job to do.