by Adrian Ford
I watched as the nurse escorted the tall, old man back to his bed, one supporting hand on his arm the other guiding him at the small of his back. This was the fifth time in an hour that he had had to be taken back. His bay was one of a block of six in the Canford ward at Barsetshire County Hospital; three beds down each side, his and mine the middle units opposite each other.
I said ‘old man’; well he was the spitting image of Methuselah, but probably only about eighty. His beard was a dull grey, dripping with greasy yellow streaks that flowed in long unkempt skeins down either side of his face to well below his chin. His brow was broad and furrowed by deep folds of dry skin, topped by a matting of thin unruly hair. His skin was a dark brown parchment crinkled and cracked and desiccated by age and weather. His staring eyes were deep pools of obsidian as featureless and dead as a shark’s, unblinking in the late afternoon sunshine that bathed his bed in light. His aquiline nose, from which tufts of white and grey hair now protruded, hinted that in his youth he would have been an imposing man. But now, as he fell as if in slow motion onto his bed, his thinness was of prisoner-of-war magnitude. He wore a hospital gown, that piece of unnatural apparel designed by a buffoon to steal the last vestiges of self-respect from the NHS’s unsuspecting patients, that had rode up revealing his long sticks of muscle-less legs. His rib-cage was trying to break out of the paper-thin skin that encased it uncomfortably, mottled and hairless. Apart from on his head and private parts his body was hairless as if some demon barber had shaved him clean from neck to toe.
The nurse tucked him in, admonishing him once again for his recalcitrance, and then pulled up the sides of the bed, horizontal metal bars that were to ensure he did not escape again, checking that the catches, if not padlocks, were secure, and left.
He lay there for some time before an exploratory at least size ten foot appeared from under the thin hospital blanket, the toes running up and down the bars as if they were lunar robots on a reconnaissance mission. A bony, knobbly ankle tried to lever the bars apart to no avail, then a hand, long, sinewy and pulsing with proud blue veins that stretched the calloused skin upwards, grabbed hold of a bar. The whole room seemed to shake as I watched, a voyeur peeking through a forbidden window, as he tested the locking mechanism. His head remained unmoving, his eyes, as if filled with Indian ink, seemed even blacker, uncomprehending, deadpan.
But this was just a ruse. The blankets slowly drifted off the bed revealing his semi-naked emaciated torso and legs (and his tackle) and his right leg began to move sinuously (and in another context might well have been sensually) up and down the side bars before going through between the top and middle bars. Then his hips moved upwards and followed his skinny leg which was in turn followed, naturally, by his body, head, arms and finally, simultaneously with the thud of his meagre frame hitting the floor, his remaining leg. A few bars of reggae music were all that was needed to complete the performance. He had limboed out of his bed with the agility of a Caribbean dancer.
He began to crawl round the end of his bed, a great shell-less hermit crab scuttling towards… freedom, somewhere west of the nurses’ station. As he passed I noticed that his eyes were now focused and sparkling, little flashes of light emanating like shards of mica in round black igneous stones, his chin jutting out and morphing his former features into those of an intrepid explorer. He remained on all fours, his gown nowhere particular, showing his wrinkled, shrunken back-side, his huge scrotum almost touching the floor, as he crawled into…the shapely black-stockinged calf of Matron’s left leg. She stood, a female Colossus, legs apart, hands on hips, with that special superior medical practitioners’ look on her otherwise handsome face.
‘And where do you think you are going to, Mr Moses?’ she said.
Adrian Ford is a superannuated sixty-something year old chap who loves writing and seeks to improve his skills.