She looks so fragile in her sleep. The firmness of her finely sculptured face has crumbled into cavernous folds of skin between her cheek bones. Those hands – those powerful hands – are withered, covered in liver spots. Once, she was considered beautiful. Now – as death waits to claim her – all that is left is ugliness.
Some feel sorry for her. It doesn’t matter anymore who she once was. Now she is simply a frail old woman, sick and in pain. She needs our loving care, just like all the rest. After all, we know her because she was in the public eye, Ginny says, Who knows what these others might have done in their time? The girls nod and sip their tea, before returning to soothe aches, change soiled clothes, turn bodies to prevent bed sores.
I remain behind in the staff kitchen, swirling the last dregs of my tea round and round, a tannin whirlpool at the bottom of my cup. I am not like my colleagues. It is precisely because of who she was that I cannot let her be. Thanks to her, I watched my father lose first his job, then his way, finally his life. Cirrhosis of the liver. No surprise – we had lived with the memento mori of yellow skin and bloodshot eyes for years – yet the real culprit got away. Those hands, those powerful hands, waved away factories, call centres, shops and with a flourish of the pen, signed away benefits and health care. Whilst those beautiful chiselled cheeks smiled to the cameras as she explained it would create a leaner, fitter, more productive society. How can I forget?
I will be alone tonight. Once these sick women have all been tucked up like small children, my colleagues will leave. Over the next eight hours I will wander from room to room checking that the patients are sleeping, breathing – that all is as well as can be expected. It is not uncommon for death to come in the dark hours before dawn. I am often the first to find, and then report the passing of someone’s mother, grandmother, aunt. It would not be so unusual if it happened to her tonight. She is very old, she is very sick, and in great pain.
The girls all leave at ten o’clock, laughing and joking as they escape back into the life that exists beyond these mortuary walls. I pace from room to room until I arrive at hers. I look at her still, sleeping face. She is barely breathing. I plump up the pillows, and steady myself for what comes next.