Try to keep your attention focused on the collection of dirty plates before you. Arrange the stacks to stay them from falling. This is yours to attempt, the central motive is to be steady, focused. Of this you remind yourself. This is the job that you are there to do. There are separate trays for the various cutlery. The plastic forks slide into the furthest left, whereas the knives rest easy in the middle. Now you siphon them in automatically and this makes it harder to concentrate solely on the job at hand.

Try to keep your eyes from wandering, leave the nearby conversations alone, for they are not yours to fall into. No one is asking for your involvement, though you’re aware that this environment breeds within its occupants the constant knowledge that there is always someone listening, someone startlingly and perfectly aware. But this is not your job; others are in the middle of that task. Stay with the plates. Wipe them down and remove the smears of yellowish, gelatinous sauce. Using the blunt end of a fork, flick off the gnarled tussled ends of potatoes uneaten, the rinds and fats from a tail-slice of greying pork.

You remove all these by sliding them into the waste bin between your feet that juts out from under the trolley. Tower the plates so that they will not tumble, only cackle with an inevitable shake. That sound like a thousand glasses bumping awkwardly alongside one another at the arrival of a minute, localised earthquake. It’s a sound that you imagine would be terrible, if it shook you when sitting in a bar, the clinical rows of endless glasses meeting as the boat split and rocked itself violently under.

It’s a sound of imminent chaos, of something much bigger than yourself about to come.

It’s a sound of imminent chaos, of something much bigger than yourself about to come. You wish there was plastic tape or cord or some loose spring of wire to hold them still, but there isn’t. That sound is just an inevitable part of your daily arrival and departure.

This ward is always the last of the lunch route. As it seems, you move forever-downward, beginning at the high peaks of the building in the cardiac department, rooms of quiet stasis where nobody really moves or talks. The greatest friction in there rises only from the shapely curtains that shift in a breeze of muted disregard for the seriousness and life threatening state of their inhabitants. Few people here eat good, whole and solid meals. There are fewer trays to shunt, less work to do, but the quiet pace demands that every movement is carefully placed. It takes time to finish in here. Not that you mind. This is the first floor you visit after the chaos and screaming racket of the kitchen and you are glad for the pause, the rest bite. You do not wait here for the meals to be eaten. You just lift up and sweep of the uneaten food into the sack.

Back into the lift, you manoeuvre your heavy and cumbersome cart alone throughout the descending four flours. Not many people are eating today, so there is little to hand out. Meals only really become mandatory by the basement, and here most of the food, the blackened potato’s and steamed pork, will return untouched. This does not bother you for you didn’t cook it. And staring at the sluggish mush composed of carrots and some other yellowed and indistinguishable root vegetable, you accept that those who sculpted it did so did without much love or affection, so no delicate egos will be crushed or bruised. The chefs are already outside, smoking or cleaning down the surfaces for tomorrow. They won’t wait to see the trays’ return. Output is all that is viable to sustain. Little room is left for sentiment.

To your very last meal on the trolley, they will be handed out down in the basement. Each patient must at least take a plate and sit either by the nailed down tables or on the sofa in front of the TV. The stress is not on finishing the meal or even showing any real interest, but in that the motions have been carried on through. They have been given the option, the availability of nutrition. But most of them will send it back, and this no longer concerns you.

The walls are blue though they used to be rose. They were being painted here in your first week. The furniture still set to match that pervious hue seems ugly and forced to be out of place. Forming the north wall of the common room are large blocks of plastic-looking glass, whose density obscures you from peering through to the outside, though you’d see only a concrete wall and black iron staircase that leads to an enclosed area of the northwest car parking lot. The steps being blocked off with a large imposing gate clearly locked. The floor in front of the steps is littered with cigarettes, where at routine intervals of every half hour, an attendee blows a whistle and all those patients who want to can go out to smoke, the attendee standing with them. This bustle allows for the changing of seats, time to grab a valuable spot on the sofa, or cheat at cards, rearrange the pieces on a checkers set. Currently, the large television is playing a mid-afternoon repeat of a cookery competition with the sound turned all the way down. There is no one watching it, but still it remains switched on. To the left are the bedrooms where you are not allowed to enter. Each patient shares their bedroom with one other and the beds, so you have been told, are uncomfortable due to the disparity between the worn softness of the mattresses and the unyielding metal frames. To the right by the entrance doors are the nurse’s station and the office, which appears busy and unrestrained due to an overflow of paper and psychological documentation. The nurse’s station is sanitary and clean and nearly always contains an orderly in conversation with the nurse, whose hair is something close to brown but tarnished into blondish nurturing by the sun of which she can only get a little of in here, but makes up for in her days off by spending afternoons exercising and performing cardio in the hospital park. She tried for a while jogging around the grounds but found that the exhaust fumes from the adjacent overpass clung to the building like moss around a rock.

Though knowing that your attention should be to the task, to keeping the incoming run of plates half empty and those full to ascend the growing stack needs to be your only concern, though this is harder than it is most days. For visitors are not uncommon, regularly within your shift there is a selection of bodies, often leaning into or across the nailed down redish tables, all hands meeting in the middle, the older ones so often atop or stroking those of the patients. And clearly there is love. Sometimes while removing hardened mounds of pastry crust pushed into the plate by the unhappy repetitive stabbings of a blunted fork, you’ve seen these families sitting by the television, though no one’s calmly watching, most often all the attention being distinctly some place else, on the patient, or on the walls, in a near tear eyed attempt to mentally transport these brief spells of time with those they care for into another, possibly more friendly, certainly more private space. Perhaps a dining room not four years ago, or the annex of an attic bedroom where as teenagers they met and shared their first few stolen drinks, which inevitably made them sick, yet still good memories all the same. These gazes are the hardest because they stand out so palatable, and yet resolute to the realisation that neither they nor the thought could ever change the current. They are brutal fantasy. So you try not to stare, or even worse, to empathise.

Yet the visitor who signed himself in twenty minutes ago, who’s sat with a patient on the furthest table, tucked into the corner of the dinning area is different. Return on that. He is not so different, appearing as equally conflicted with the desire to study the room and a certain fear of being here himself, a look with appears within most of those who buzz on through and sign the guest sheet. Rather it is the conversation, the inaction of it all that is so painful to watch. His companion is all but compos mentis.

buried in that low grey, existing someplace behind a screen and dark water.

She is medicated, buried in that low grey, existing someplace behind a screen and dark water. Her eyes are still bright and there is action when she speaks, more so in fact, than he seems to offer. His body offers narrow shadow and retreats into low and hushed tones. Neither one of them is moving much, the conversation resting in a pause between attacks. She didn’t touch her food, but has not thought to bring it over, to return it to the trolley, or place it within your arm’s reach. You know that interrupting the conversation is impossible and you want to leave the tray but know you all the same you can’t. Spend a little longer shifting the orange and yellow gloop from the remaining plates; reorder the stack while checking the clock to see how long is left for you to entertain them. You want to wait, to stick it out, but there are limits, as there are to all things.

What is fascinating, though you know you shouldn’t look, is the lack of real or true interaction between the couple. Often a patient appears spaced or more than slightly out of it. A high dose earlier that day and they’ll glide uncomfortably on through it, dreamily slipping into the next, but this is different. The girl’s pose is aware. She’s in her clear light. The chemicals are not interfering with her ability to think or express herself; she’s simply choosing not to. The male visitor, it could be said, is behaving worse. With each mannerism he awakens and reveals the further heavy remnants of real guilt. He tucks his hands under his legs in a caricature of uncomfortable feeling, but nothing about this meeting is really present. Neither one of them can afford to be within it; so both are standing by adjacent sides, a crevasse of a mere few inches mirroring years, miming their words and speaking through acted voices. The subtle yet sublime tragedy of the interaction, it’s played on out as the running of its course becomes the only purpose, the sole reason for the boy’s visit. Both now sit alone with one another, staring down, but definitely not in it. Neither one of them can stand to hear the moments passing, each one no longer believing that the other can say anything to accommodate or acclimatize their situation. Paralysis occurring in real-time as she absent mindedly shifts the uneaten food around the rising edges of her plate.

You check the clock; soon you will have to disturb them. Even an arm leaning in to reach for the plate seems too much. You’re not party to their joint wanting for the conversation to be over. You’re nothing but a hired third wheel, your silence as engaged as their own. At the beginning of the meeting, the boy had thought about taking the girl’s hand in his, as a sign of understanding, but couldn’t. She too had momentary held onto this desire, though she knew it wouldn’t happen. From days of heavy and intense substance abuse, they had reassured the other that should this situation ever occur again, and with the girl’s necessary intake of various antipsychotics they had almost been assured that it would, that they would know how to deal, how to cope. The boy had reminded the girl, then sitting on the bed on the third floor of their home, how he had steered her out of her delusions before. How he had talked her around their flat, referencing all the personal connotations that they had come to associate with all of their various possessions, till she confessed that she could once again remember his name and was no longer as afraid. How that night when he lay next to her she had spoke, stating that though she was still uncertain who he was he must certainly be an angel, a fact which he had put solely down to his coincidental wearing of a white shirt.

The buzzer rings off, and with it he stands to leave. You try to keep your eyes focused on the tipping plate almost slipping from your hand. A small drop of the sauce has landed on a cotton band, which you keep tied around your wrist, a small token from your wife, worn with the promise that you’d keep it on. And as the boy now turns to leave, you catch the girl staring infinitely beyond him. As the attendee blows a whistle and opens the door by the iron-framed steps, you quickly take the plate from her while she begins searching for her cigarettes. You scrape everything off it quickly and shove it in the stack. The elevator is already arriving, the doors sliding open as you make yourself ready to return you to the kitchen. Manoeuvring the door, you shove the cumbersome trolley through without the aid of the warden who still stands, casually chatting to the nurse. You would turn back to look if you thought the boy was about to do the same. Though you keep on walking, without having to question it again and without having to turn around.

Author: jameskramerblog

James Kramer is a fiction writer currently based in Beijing. His writing has appeared in Your Impossible Voice, as well as various Poetry anthologies. He currently writes a monthly-ish column for LeftLion magazine on China.

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