Painted Black | 451life

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Painted Black

A short story by Joanna Cannon

The woman who takes the overdose hears the morning start without her. The mechanical sounds of other people’s lives, whilst her own lies stagnant in curtained light. The woman who takes the overdose is not a fatalist, nor is she a coward, but she carries around so many layers of herself, she is unable to find her way back.

The woman watches her husband. She listens to a razor drag at his skin, the flick of water in a basin. The sounds, not the objects, are the bars of her prison. Not the walls or the ceilings, but the noises. The small noises are the worst. Tapping, ticking, breathing. Sometimes, when no one is looking, she places her hands over her ears, to stop the noises from creeping inside. The husband asks the woman if she is okay, and she replies to her husband that she is fine, because fine is an easy, deceitful word that slides from her throat and buries them both. He peers into the cabinet mirror as he shaves, and to the woman, it seems as though he is staring through the glass and straight into the bottle of tablets she plans to take, as soon as he leaves the house.

As the woman watches her husband, the doctor in A&E watches names on a board click from green to orange, to red. There is no control over the colours, and the doctor presses her hands to her eyes. She presses so hard, that when she looks up, all the colours have vanished and the whole of her world is painted black. But the sounds are still there. Not only the big sounds. Not only the swing and hammer of doors, and the shouts of a newly-woken drunk, but also the tap of a finger on a plastic chair, the click of the wheels on a trolley, and the whisper of a curtain, that draws around the cubicle of someone else’s life. The sounds fire from a mosaic of people who turn and twist in front of the doctor, and the people make her brain rattle itself against the sides of her skull. And it is not true that medicine is a vocation, because the doctor thinks that if medicine were a vocation, she would not want every single one of these people to disappear. And so, instead of looking at the people, the doctor stares at the list of jobs which she knows will never be finished, because radiology is not answering the phone and there is no computer free to check blood results, and another wave of people have washed up in the waiting room, which means all the colours on the board will change again from green to orange to red. The nurse who is sitting next to the doctor asks the doctor if everything is okay, and the doctor says everything is fine. The nurse smiles and passes the triage notes for the next patient, and the doctor tries to remember whether the nurse is called Steve or Chris, or Ed, because every time she works with Steve or Chris, or Ed, he has the same calm kindness. A calm kindness she once hoped she might achieve, in the days when inexperience tricked her into believing she could ever make a difference.

Whilst the doctor is trying to remember whether the nurse is called Steve or Chris, or Ed, the woman is watching her husband reverse their car out of the drive. She remembers a time when she also needed to wear a watch and reverse a car out of a drive, but the woman knows that time is ruthless, and it makes things that were once certain, quickly seem foolish and absurd. As the woman watches her husband leave, she hears the silence arrive to take his place, and it’s the silence which makes everything else bigger. It’s the silence which will send her upstairs, to the tablets which wait for her in a cabinet, behind a bathroom mirror. As the woman watches, she realises this could be the last time she will ever see her husband’s face, and the thought crouches in her mind for a while, and is bland and unmoving. She wonders if she should embroider the thought and make it heavier, but instead, she twists a wedding ring around her finger and listens to a noiseless house. She twists the ring so violently, it falls from her finger and spins across the floor, and the woman gets on her hands and knees to search, because she doesn’t want to die without her wedding ring. There is no one else to help her look, and because there is no one else to help her look, the woman begins to cry, and in those moments she manages to find even a little more hatred for herself – because she is woman who is able to cry for a wedding ring, but not for a husband.

As the woman is searching for a wedding ring, the doctor is asking questions in a cubicle in A&E, and the patient is saying, ‘you tell me, you’re the doctor,’ and the doctor is pressing the nib of the pen so hard into the notes, the paper is beginning to tear, and the doctor feels the noise of the pen bleed into her skull, and tells the woman that she might be the doctor, but she is also just a human being. The patient begins to shout about waiting times and taxes. She pulls a cardigan around her shoulders, and asks for the phone number of PALS, and the doctor apologises again for something which will never be her fault. The patient is still shouting when she hands the doctor a Sainsbury’s carrier bag, full of her regular medication which must all be prescribed, and the patient tells the doctor that she should consider herself lucky that she does a job where she never has to work weekends and gets paid a small fortune. There are so many words in the doctor’s mouth, none of them is able to leave, and so she snatches the Sainsbury’s carrier bag and returns to the nurses’ station, and for a moment, she forgets where she is and presses the palms of her hands into her eyes. When the black paint has washed away, the doctor sees the nurse (who is called Steve or Chris, or Ed) and he is staring and telling her that resus is empty, and she could use the computer there to prescribe the patient’s medication. And so the doctor takes the Sainsbury’s carrier bag, and she sits alone in the stainless steel quiet of resus, in a room where lives are broken and fixed, and lost. The doctor empties the contents of the bag. She reads the name on each packet. Warfarin and Ramipril and Simvastatin and codeine phosphate. The doctor digs her nail into the edge of the foil, and tries to remember a time when she knew none of their names. When the weight of other people’s lives did not press upon on her shoulders, at a time she could scarcely manage to bear the weight of her own.

As the doctor is prescribing the tablets, the woman is closing the bathroom door and rushing for the stairs, because the doorbell has rung and the woman is worried her husband has forgotten his keys and he will undo her day. Because the woman rushes, she misses her footing, and although the woman knows it is hopeless, her arms swim through the air, searching for something to save herself. Even though she didn’t even know she wanted to be saved. But still the woman falls and she shouts out, and the old lady who has rung the bell hears and pushes the door open, and says they need to ring for an ambulance. The woman does not want an ambulance, but the old lady chooses to ignore this, and she takes out a mobile telephone and punches a number into it, and makes her morning a more interesting one. When the woman arrives in A&E, she is invaded by uniforms and monitors, and lights, and she waits in a cubicle for the doctor. As she waits, she twists the wedding ring around her finger, and she remembers how her arms swam through the air, searching for something to save herself. And the woman finds it is a scene she can never unremember.

The doctor, who is still in resus, flinches when the nurse asks her to see the woman who has fallen down the stairs, because the doctor wonders how long the nurse has been standing there, and how much the nurse has seen. But the nurse says nothing. Even when the doctor gathers up the tablets she has been prescribing, even when she has to reach down, because some of the tablets have spilled to the floor. When the doctor arrives in the cubicle, the woman is still twisting the wedding ring around her finger. The doctor takes a history, but all the time she is watching the ring and watching the woman’s eyes, because the eyes may be looking at the doctor, but they are not the eyes of a woman who has only missed her footing on a flight of stairs. As the doctor combs for an answer, the ring falls from the woman’s finger and spins across the cubicle. The woman begins to cry, and so the doctor gets on her hands and knees and searches for the woman’s wedding ring on the floor of A&E, and the doctor finds it odd, because helping to look makes the woman happy, even before the ring has been found.

When the doctor tries to return the ring to the woman, the woman tells the doctor to put the ring in the hospital safe, because she has changed her mind and it doesn’t need to be worn. And the doctor remembers how a small act of kindness can make someone look as though they have only missed their footing on a flight of stairs, when only moments before, they had been lost. And she realises that the ability to make a difference is never destroyed by experience, but is only ever sandpapered down by the expectation of others, and the expectation you might have of yourself.

And so the doctor leaves the cubicle, and the woman who has only missed her footing on a flight of stairs, and she searches for the nurse, who is called Steve or Chris, or Ed. As she searches, she finds all the colours have vanished and the world is painted black, even though she has not pressed the palms of her hands into her eyes, and she finds the sounds that had buried themselves into her skull are now becoming more distant and faded.

When the doctor finds the nurse, he is in resus. He is holding a tablet, a tablet the doctor must have missed when they spilled to the floor.

The woman who has taken an overdose decides she is neither a fatalist, nor a coward, but has carried around so many layers of herself, she was unable to find her way back, and so the woman who has taken an overdose removes the stethoscope from her neck before she speaks.

She says, ‘I have done something, and I need to tell someone very quickly.’

And as she falls, her arms swim through the air, as she searches for something to save herself.

Joanna Cannon's debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is published by The Borough Press.