Mel sat on the wooden bench in the female staff changing room in the basement of the hospital. She was glad she was on an early. It was horrible down here after a late, especially in the winter. Why do they stick us in this dump, anyway?
The fact that the nursing staff had to arrive in mufti for their shifts was a bit of a bugbear to her. They didn't make the doctors get changed, did they? They just came in off the street and straight to the patients – some of the medical students on her ward didn't even change their shirts from one day to the next either. The ward Sister, June, didn't approve either. She had trained thirty years ago, when all the medics wore white coats – from consultants on down - to see the patients. It didn't make a lot of difference though, Sister June reckoned. She said the only thing that prevented cross-infection was good old fashioned hand-washing, like she'd had drummed into her during her training. June came to work in uniform, which was against the rules, really, but Mel thought it was fair enough, because she came straight from home to the hospital, by car, and wore a clean uniform for every shift, which is more than most of the nurses did. Mel liked June. She talked a lot of sense and she was a pretty decent Sister – the nicest one she'd had since she started her training.
She was dying for a ciggie. Since the smoking ban last year, and the disappearance of the smoking room, they hadn't been able to have one on their breaks or even at lunchtime. Well, not unless you wanted to get changed into mufti again and walk outside the hospital gates. It wasn't worth the hassle and shaved about fifteen minutes off an already short break. She put her jacket on and grabbed her handbag, checking first that her fags and lighter were there, then made her way along the dingy basement corridor to the stairs.
Then she stopped. Damn! That old boy at the bus stop. She'd promised him as he went into the ambulance, that she'd find out where he'd been admitted and pop in to see how he was, before she went home. Well – he won't remember that, will he? She thought. Still, she'd promised, and she liked to keep her promises. She looked longingly at the cigarette packet. Maybe have one first, then go up? No – then her breath would be all stinky. The fag would have to wait.
She went to the lifts, and pressed the ''up'' arrow. She'd try Coronary Care first, then Cardiology. She thought, half hoping he'd be in ITU so that she wouldn't be allowed to see him, then immediately feeling guilty because that would mean he wasn't well.
On the sixth floor, she followed the signs, and pushed open the strong fire door to the Coronary Care Unit. It was really quiet here, a peaceful place, unlike the noisy bustle of the general surgery ward which was her current rotation. At the nurses station, an overweight and mumsy looking ward clerk sat, tapping on a keyboard. She looked up at Mel, and smiled.
''Can I help you?'' she asked.
''Yeah... yes. I just wondered if you'd had an old guy admitted this morning?'' Well, that was a stupid question, she thought, immediately, feeling awkward. They probably had loads of old men admitted – every morning. ''He would have been an emergency – from A & E?''
''We did have a couple of emergency admissions, yes.'' said the ward clerk, still smiling. ''What's the name, dear?''
Mel stared at her, blankly. This woman would think she was mad. She didn't know his name. Then, her subconscious dredged one up. ''Harry.... I think.''
The ward clerk tapped a key and looked at her monitor. ''One of the admissions was a 'Harold', yes. Are you a relative?''
Mel thought that this time it was the ward clerk's turn to ask a silly question. What sort of relative would not know the surname of their nearest and dearest? Well maybe they were trained not to judge... just to ask the standard questions. She decided the truth would be easiest.
''No. No relation – I'm a student nurse. I just happened to be in the bus queue this morning when he collapsed.'' She looked down, modestly. ''I started CPR on him.''
''Oh.'' said the ward clerk, putting her hands together for a second. Mel suppressed a giggle, as the woman looked as if she was about to give her a round of applause. ''A real good Samaritan, then. Well done. I'll just go and ask the Charge Nurse if you can pop in and say hello to him.'' She stood and went into an office along the corridor, then emerged a few minutes later with a tall blond, extraordinarily beautiful man wearing a white tunic with navy epaulettes. The ward clerk pointed towards Mel, and he approached her, grinning. The cheery grin diluted the effect of his beauty, somewhat, but not enough to stop a blush spreading up her cheeks.
Mel looked down, and started fiddling with the straps of her handbag, then glanced up at his name badge, which proclaimed that he was Stephen Brookes, Senior Charge Nurse, Coronary Care Unit.
Blimey, she thought. All the male nurses she'd met so far in her nursing career had either been nerds or as camp as Christmas. She hoped she'd never be allocated to this ward, or she'd wouldn't be able to concentrate on her work. She found herself wanting that cigarette more than ever.
''Hi.'' he said, in an unexpected soft Scouse accent. ''We normally wouldn't allow non-relatives in, in the first 48 hours, but I'm sure we can make an exception in the circumstances. You obviously had your wits about you this morning. We've had a few student nurses doing their allocation with us, who've floundered during an arrest situation, even here.'' He gestured at the resus trolley, next to him. ''with all the emergency equipment to hand. I'm always very impressed when someone has the presence of mind to step in in a non-clinical setting.''
Mel shrugged, then wished she hadn't. He walked towards a four bedded bay, opposite the nurses station. ''He's in bed two. He pointed at the bed next to the window, and Mel hesitated, then thanked the Charge Nurse and walked into the bay.
Harry was sitting propped up on three pillows, staring towards the window. Mel went over and tapped him gently on the arm. He turned his head, looked at her curiously for a few seconds, then vague recognition flickered in his eyes.
''Hello there.'' he said, smiling. ''I know you, don't I? Aren't you the young lady from the baker's? How did you know I was in here?''
''No. not the bakery.'' she said, stealing a look at the card behind his head. I work here., Mr Crabtree. I'm a student. Nurse, I mean. But you know me from the bus stop. I was there this morning, when you... felt poorly.''
His mouth fell open. ''Oh! You're a nurse? Are you the young lady who... helped me? The nurses here told me that the ambulance men said there was someone giving me the kiss of life, or whatever it is they call it these days. Was that you?''
Mel smiled. ''Well, some of the other ladies in the queue helped too.'' she said. ''And one of the men called the ambulance.
''Well, it sounds like I had the 'A-Team' there then.'' he said, chuckling. ''Thank you very much, young lady. What's your name?''
''Melanie. Mel.'' she said, looking at the tracing on his cardiac monitor. It looked very healthy to her, but she hadn't done cardiology yet, so what did she know. ''Had you been... having trouble with your heart before?''
''No, love. Never had a day's illness in me life. Maybe I need to cut down on all the old cholesterol, eh?'' he pronounced it clestrol. ''I dunno what can have caused it.'' He looked into the distance.
''Well, I just thought I'd see how you were. Glad to see you're doing okay.'' said Mel, feeling that it was time to leave. She'd done her duty to this stranger. She didn't want to tire him out, and she felt the call of the nicotine. ''I'll leave you to it. Can I get you anything before I go?'' She looked around, saw a newspaper in the armchair beside his bed, out of his reach. ''Would you like your paper?'' She held it up to him.
His eyes caught the headline and the colour drained from his face. Mel looked at the monitor. The regular tracing now showed odd beats. She had a vague memory that they were called 'ectopics'.
''Are you okay, Mr Crabtree... Harry?'' she asked, going closer to the bed. Her eyes went automatically to the red 'cardiac arrest' button behind the bedhead, under his name card. The old man didn't look so good.
He clutched at her hand, taking long, deep breaths. Looking at her, a hard look, he gasped. ''Digging down. Digging down. Tell them to dig deeper. Dig... dig deep...'' His eyes went blank, then he slumped sideways.
''Oh God!'' said Mel, as she sprinted round the bed and pulled the large red button out from the wall. Chaos ensued. People in uniform appeared from everywhere, and she hesitated,then fled from the ward.
Outside, taking deep drags on her menthol cigarette, she held an image in her head. The headline on the newspaper. ''The Hundred Year Old Boy’s Remains Found in Bluebell Woods.” She remembered then that the old man had been reading a paper when he had collapsed this morning. What was that about telling them to dig deeper? Who?
She made her way to the bus stop. Suddenly, she was shattered.