Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.
Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.
He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.
It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.
“Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”
She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.
Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.
“Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”
It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.
“Greek,” she’d replied quickly.
“You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.
“Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”
“She was Egyptian,” he’d said.
“Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”
He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.
Drifting in an out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.
He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.
“I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.
“Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.
She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.
“Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.
To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.
“No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”
She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.
“Your girlfriend?” she asked.
“Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”
The woman swallowed.
“I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”
He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.
“But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.
She shook her head.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”
“But you can do something about that, can’t you?”
She shook her head again.
“I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”
He struggled to take in what she was saying.
“You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”
His voice rose with anger and outrage.
“I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”
He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.
“It’s not fair,” he said at last.
“Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”
“You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”
“No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”
“Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”
“Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.
“That’s all I can do, now,” she said.
He lay very still, seeming deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.
“Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”
“No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”
The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.
“He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”
She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.
“He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”
She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.
“What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.
Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.
“I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.
The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.
“I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”
Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.
© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010