by Chris Buchanan
Flash fiction, 2010
The stockroom is faded and blurred at the edges, like her. I don’t exactly know if it’s too dark in here or if I just need to blink. I don’t want to close my eyes so I try not to think about it.
She’s just sat here, barely glancing at me but holding me still with her silent shuffling. If I could concentrate I might be able to identify the specks across her cheek. It’s either mud or blood. It’s dark and it’s dry, so I can’t say, even at this distance. She keeps scraping off the spots, usually cracking or crumbling them when her nail hits their edges. Now she has gotten better at lifting them off in one piece. Whenever she successfully pries one away, she flicks it at me and mimes chuckling. They’re on my face now, too, but I don’t mind.
I had decided the stories about the A&E at night must be an outlet for the stress the doctors go through. They call it ‘the grey lady’s ward’ sometimes. I didn’t want to think that Preston Royal was staffed by crazy people, so I made excuses for them. In some jobs, maybe you just need to believe in an afterlife. Only the doctors and nurses ever claim to see her. Never the hired help, even those who have been here longer than me. Just those people who come to work each day knowing that they might fail to save someone’s life.
But now she’s right here, with me, next to an aluminium cabinet, smiling with her head cocked. How have I never noticed her? When she smiles at me like that, I don’t know what she means by it and my feet feel light. Sometimes I twitch and she turns her face as if to laugh. Maybe she just finds me funny.
She would have caught my attention even in life. Her hair is blonde, I suppose. I might be able to tell if I could just rub the sleep from my eyes or splash some water across them. I have to wonder what all this ‘grey lady’ stuff is about; she’s wearing a football shirt and I never heard of any Newcastle player named ‘Amber’. Has nobody spent enough time in her presence to look at her back?
They’re too busy, eh. I would have made a terrible doctor. I took the time to learn her name. And I’m staying with her. They’ll just have to run their own errands tonight. This is important. I wonder what happens to her during the daytime. I’ll stay and watch. I think she wants me to stay with her.
Another dot of mud-or-blood hits me, on the nose this time, but I don’t react. She stares at me and I try to read her expression.
The dots are on her shirt, too, only visible on the white stripes. They merge into a black splash on her legs, beneath the shorts. Finally I work it out; she’s been playing football. It’s just mud. With relief I move to cradle my head in my hands. There is more of the mud on my sleeves.
Of course it’s mud. She snapped the bones playing football. That’s why she came in. That’s why they needed me to hurry down here and fetch Doctor Hay. It was an emergency. She wasn’t here and I looked in the stockroom. But I never left. I couldn’t find her and I panicked.
After a while, I relaxed. It didn’t matter. She was with me. I was too careful, too nervous to save her, but she’s here with me now. Smiling.
There is a harshness to that smile now. The more I remember, the closer her face seems to come to mine. I am reminded of how small the room is. I think I hear the studs of her boots squeak a little against the floor.
The door opens above us, momentarily stealing my attention. When I glance back, she’s gone. A nurse is here and she looks frightened by something. She must have seen Amber vanish. I hate myself for missing it and I hate the nurse for disturbing me. She has to drag me out as I scrabble and try to flick the mud onto her. I feel myself grappling against her, determined to stay here and wait. She gets me out and I am still.
I have never seen Casualty this busy. As the night ends, the corridor is full of patients, each one’s image as colourless and undefined as the girl I have been watching. Each one grey in their own way. When the nurse finally sees them she loosens her grip and stares into the corridor, unblinking. Maybe she recognises somebody too.
The ghosts are everywhere, silently shifting into the rooms and into reception. Amber is by the vending machine, giggling. I run.