by Paul Gilmour

Danny swirled the mixture of pills and water around in his mouth, occasionally pausing to examine the texture and shape of each capsule with his tongue. His eyes rolled back and forth too and when he was satisfied he jerked his head back and swallowed the lot.

"I wish you wouldn't do that. You always look as if you're about to choke," said Reg. Danny smirked and returned to his newspaper.

"I can't believe it. Nothing. Not a thing," he hurriedly ruffled through the pages of a tabloid, his brow more furrowed with each page he turned. "Pass me The Times please, Reg,"

Slowly Reg bent down, supporting himself with one hand on his good knee and one on his trolley. He spotted The Times under a box of chocolate bars and reached for it. He removed the piece of blue string that had stuck to the front page when he bought it.

"I don't see why you're so eager to get in the newspapers anyway. I always thought it was better if you stayed out of them."

"Free advertising, Reg, free advertising."

Reg simply chuckled and said he knew nothing about the ins and outs of the business world. He ignored Danny's steely look as he leaned over to adjust a sheet that had become untucked. As he flattened it out and tucked it back in, he noticed grey smears caused by fingers covered with newspaper print. He held the sheet up close to his face and placed his glasses on his forehead to see the marks better. He sighed and reached for the blue cloth draped over the handle of his trolley. As he dipped it in a glass of water on the bedside table, Danny stirred from his paper.

"What do you think you're doing? I was drinking from that!"

"You know you're not allowed newspapers," Reg began to scrub fiercely on the white sheet, "if the nurse finds this we'll both be in big trouble."

Danny drew breath and returned to his reading exhaling and shaking his head. A bus crash had killed six school children in Brighton (it was the driver's fault). Having successfully removed the print marks, Reg straightened himself with difficulty and replaced the cloth in its hanging place. "How are you today anyway?"

"Just peachy thanks, Reg."

Ignoring this, Reg continued: "What have you got on for the rest of the day?"

"Therapy at two with Sigmund Freud and then a group meeting at 4 I think."

"Good-good. Is there anything you'd like from the trolley?"

"Ah go on then - I'll have a Snickers."

Stooping for the chocolate bar, Reg also took out his mobile phone and handed them both to a smiling Danny who in turn, placed a folded banknote in the palm of Reg's hand. Reg winked.

"I'll pick it up on my next round. Just remember to keep it down and if you see the nurse then hide it."

But Danny knew he wouldn't be disturbed. Very few people came past his room and he wasn't serious enough to warrant constant monitoring by the porters or nurses. Reg said goodbye and left the room. The slow regular squeak of wheels on the wooden floor grew gradually quieter as he and his trolley trundled on down the corridor. Working women were jeopardising family life.

When Reg returned, Danny had finished with the phone and was reading the sports pages of another newspaper. Catherine Zeta Jones wore a new a Gucci dress to a film premiere. He stirred when the aroma of hot food punctuated the familiar smell of dusty wooden floors, clean linen and disinfectant.

"Dinner's up!" said Reg cheerily.

"What's it tonight?" he beamed.

"Chicken Kiev with sweet potatoes and mixed vegetables coated in a creamy peppercorn sauce," said Reg in his best waiter-like voice. He relaxed and added: "I wouldn't mind some of that meself, I'm starvin'."

"I tell you, Reg, this stuff is never half as good as what I used to make when I was a chef at The Ivy. Now that was cooking." Danny gazed up into the corner of the ceiling and smiled to himself, savouring the thought of his old life.

"You were a chef?" Reg knew he wasn't meant to encourage him, but he always liked talking to Danny. Quite simply, it was fun and it made them both smile.

"The youngest chef to get a Michelin Star!" Danny added, now sounding like an old man retelling a war story.

"I'm afraid I don't know anything about cooking and restaurants . Give me a chippy any day of the week!" Reg wiped off more black marks from the side-rail of the bed. As he replaced the cloth on the trolley he noticed how the print had become embedded in its fibres - he'd have to get another one for tomorrow's rounds, he thought.

The next morning Reg found Danny in the toilets. He was having a shave and his face was peppered with tiny cuts. He had obviously been here for some time, Reg thought, because some of the cuts had crusted over, turning a dull browny-red. He looked at him in pity and was met by a brief acknowledging glance from Danny's reflection. Reg wandered into a cubicle and re-emerged with some toilet paper which he neatly folded and placed silently on the side of the wash basin. Just as he was about to turn away he stopped. "Oh, I almost forgot," Reg pulled out a cigarette from his pocket, with a piece of blue ribbon around it tied in a bow for decoration, "Happy Birthday."

Danny put the razor down and turned to face Reg, his face a patchwork of shaving foam, red blots and pale skin. He took the cigarette and held it close to his face, first peering at it intently, then raising it up to look at in the sunlight that was streaming in through the tiny window above the mirror. Seeing Reg was watching him just as intently, he then held the cigarette aloft like a King with his sword. "I shall call this cigarette..."

"Okay, no need to be sarcastic," interrupted Reg "I know it's probably not the first one you've ever smoked but at least it'll be the first one you've smoked legally."

Danny smiled apologetically, he hadn't meant for Reg to feel embarrassed. "Thanks, Reg, that's really cool of you. Say, why don't we smoke it together round the back at lunch?"

Reg brightened again. "Sure."

That afternoon the two of them met behind the bins at the back of the building as planned. Reg watched with gratification as Danny slowly untied the blue bow that was wrapped around his birthday present, pulling carefully on one tail so that it gradually disappeared in slow motion and transformed itself into a lifeless piece of shiny blue ribbon, flapping aimlessly in the wind. As he put the cigarette to his lips he stowed the ribbon in his jacket pocket.

"Allow me," said Reg - a lighter ready in his hand. Danny took a long toke on the cigarette - as swift and casual as if he was taking a breath of air. His cheeks filled out suddenly, his eyes bulged with shock and he coughed out the lung-full of smoke he'd just inhaled. Reg let out an uncontrolable belly-laugh that stopped almost as soon as it had started. "You'll get used to it!" he giggled. Danny raised an eyebrow and in retaliation took another, slightly shorter puff of the cigarette.

"If anything it's a good thing you're not a smoker," said Reg as Danny suffered another coughing fit. He felt a bit bad that he'd made fun of him. "The doctors and the papers an' all say it gives you cancer," he paused briefly, then added quietly "and who am I to doubt them?"

Danny, still bent double and spluttering slightly, was just about to reply when the fire-door burst open and out stepped the head nurse who was in a hurry to light the cigarette she had just put to her lips. When she looked up and saw the pair - Danny with smouldering evidence in one hand and Reg with a guilty look on his face - she stopped dead. No-one knew she smoked. At least she always thought it was a secret she had managed to keep well hidden behind her spotless exterior of that dazzling white uniform (and fake smile to match) and the navy blue belt she wore tight around her waist that never moved an inch. She wasn't aware that everyone in the hospital knew her 'dark secret', it was just that no-one cared. After taking a moment to compose herself and hurriedly remove the cigarette from view she said, rather predictably, "You should both be ashamed of yourselves." She stopped, waiting for a response, but Reg and Danny just stood there silently - Reg with his head bowed and Danny looking straight at her with his left eyebrow slightly raised. The silence prompted her to continue: "I shall have to report this to the doctor. You're not allowed cigarettes Danny and you shouldn't encourage him, Reg."

When neither of them responded she turned abruptly and marched back into the building. When the door finally closed, Danny looked over at Reg who had a wide grin on his face that he was visibly trying hard to suppress. Danny burst out laughing and, after some coaxing, so too did his accomplice.

When Reg came to Danny's room on his round that evening, he saw through the window that he had visitors. He recognised them as Danny's parents, so he decided not to intrude and walked on to the next room. As he passed by at his usual leisurely pace he managed to pick up some strains of the conversation inside. "Isn't that great! You'll be home by the weekend!" he heard Danny's mother squeal. He only caught a mumble from Danny in response. Reg continued slowly down the corridor and never saw the smile that appeared on Danny's face when he heard the familiar squeak of the trolley. "So that's it," he thought, "I suppose it was going to happen eventually. There was never really anything wrong with him in the first place."

Sure enough when he came by the next morning, Danny's room was empty. Reg's heart sank. He'd still bought some newspapers and hidden them underneath the boxes of chocolate bars - just in case. But there was no-one to give them to and no nurse to hide them from.

During his lunch hour he went outside to have a cigarette. He deliberately chose the exact spot where he and Danny had shared one the day before - by the bins at the back of the hospital, just to the left of the fire escape which the nurse had stormed through. It was quiet outside but for the sound of a gentle breeze casually making its way through the row of trees that ran around the border of the hospital grounds. It was slightly colder than it had been yesterday but the cigarette kept him warm. Before he finished, he decided to read the newspapers he had bought for Danny. He found an empty resting room and lay the pile of papers on the coffee table in front of him. Over the next hour he went through every one of them. He didn't read every word or even every article, but he turned every single page and made sure everything was at least looked at. Interest rates were set to rise and an asylum seeker has been accused of rape (looks like he did it). When his break ended he decided to leave the newspapers where they lay on the table. He turned out the light in the room and returned to work - never noticing the smudged grey fingerprints that he left behind on the switch.

Rate this submission


You must be logged in to rate submissions

Loading Comments