Clare Hewitt

White wash


The smell of hospitals clings to your nose and your lungs and your clothes and doesn’t let you go.  The sliding door takes its time opening, you have to pause at it, which is why this is not the emergency entrance. 

I am not an emergency. 

The walls are a difficult, ostrich egg-shell white.  There are no seats along the corridor to Admissions, and no-one is here because they’re all somewhere else. 

I’m here, I’m not somewhere else. 

Elspeth is guiding me by my right arm.  I trip on my dress.
‘Mind your step, dear,’ she says calmly. 
She is angry, but I was only looking after Richard, who likes a bath soon after he gets home, that’s why I was cleaning it, the way I do everyday.  I must have fainted though, and hit my head.  There was blood.  Elspeth found me, like before, and Richard came home just then and stared at me as roughly as sandpaper on silk, then looked away while Elspeth took me to the car.

‘How can I help?’ a nurse at Admissions asks.
‘We’re here to see Doctor Simms.  My son called ahead.  My daughter-in-law slipped and hit her head.’
The nurse looks at me.
I stare back, challenging her gaze and she looks away quickly, saying  ‘Follow me.’

There are people in this passage.  The hospital smell sticks in my throat and makes me cough.  Everything is quiet, patients wear slippers, but my nurse wears shoes that clip quickly on the linoleum, like a whip-crack.  She leads us into a room which is proper white.
‘The doctor will be with you soon,’ she says, and clip-clops away, the way my sister and I used to pretend we were horses by banging two stones together, clip-clop, clip-clop.
Elspeth is looking at me.
‘What happened?  Tell me before the doctor gets here.’
‘I was cleaning the bath, like I do everyday, but I think I fainted.’
‘You’re a mess,’ she replies.
She means the blood, and she said the same thing last time.  The towels were a mess last time, all over the tiles, luckily not the carpet.  I’d called her because the bleeding wouldn’t stop, the first blood in a few months, and it was so painful I passed out.  She took me to the hospital then, too.  When Richard came to see me, I said, ‘Sorry about the towels.’  He said, ‘What towels?’  I said, ‘The ones your mother gave us for a wedding present.’  ‘The towels are not important,’ he said, ‘why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?’

Because I didn’t know.

And I don’t know why I fainted.  My head throbs loudly, like a head-scanning machine.

The doctor walks in.  ‘Good evening, ladies.’
‘Good evening, Doctor,’ says Elspeth.
‘Can you tell me what happened this time?’ he asks me.
‘I was cleaning the bath and I felt dizzy.  I lost my balance and I hit my head.’
‘I came in and found her, Doctor.  I was delivering dinner for my son, and I found her, in the bath, dressed … like this.  You know how unwell she’s been lately.’
‘I see. We’ll need to do another scan,’ he says to Elspeth, who he knows is in charge here.  ‘I’ll send a nurse in to help her change.’
Elspeth and I are alone again.  I touch the gash on my head.  It feels crusty.  There is brown blood on my dress.
A smiley nurse walks in.
‘Hello, Jennifer. We need to get you changed so we can put you in the scanner.  What a beautiful dress you have on.’
‘Elspeth made it for me.  I needed something white to wear while I was cleaning the bath.’
Elspeth is silent.
‘It’s gorgeous, but you’re going to have to put on this gown while you have the scan,’ Smiley Nurse says. 
She unzips me and the dress falls around my feet, the way it did when Richard undid me.  The gown she holds out for me is the colour of the walls and the sheets in the room.
‘Is this going to be my room?’ I ask Smiley Nurse.
‘Yes,’ she replies.

I think about how I will sleep in my gown the colour of the sheets and the walls, maybe I’ll get lost in the room and people will leave me in peace and stop asking me how I’m doing and taking me to the hospital.  And how, if I have one night of sleep where my dreams are the colour of the walls and the sheets and the gown, it means I will wake up happy.

The nurse hangs my wedding-dress on a hanger and puts it in the cupboard.  I needed something that wouldn’t stain if I spilled Richard’s bath-cleaning bleach on it.  I don’t think I’ll wear it again, though.

4 comments on “Clare Hewitt

  1. These are my first impressions and then I will write again once I have thought: Half way through reading this I felt like crying, but it wasn’t in response to anything specific, and as I read I thought, ‘it must be how I feel this morning,’ but after finishing it, I knew it was the story. A story without an attention seeking moment in it that often short stories about ‘self’ and ‘woman’ can possess. And yet there she is, someone who appears on the surface to be broken and weak and yet I feel she is stronger and more profound than everyone else surrounding her. Beautiful poetry.

  2. Living in a hostile world, not an ounce of wamth is apparent from any of Jennifer’s encounters in this brief episode. There are gentle, subtle, enticing hints of the unhappiness which forms her life in this portrait: cold husband, packed off to hospitalwith the mother-in-law. The situation is beautifully summed up in the parting two paragraphs, wishing for featureless dreams and a life away from the people around her; the wedding dress packed away.

  3. I haven’t read anything of yours for years – I wonder why? It doesn’t sound like the you I know and love, its older, wiser, bit more tarnished, but man, this is good – very good! Its beautiful – the writing is subtle but the images and story are bold. Where can I read more?

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