The trolley rattles as I push it down the corridor towards the operating theatre. Patients are eating their lunch at this time of the day. The hall smells like mashed potato and powdered chicken soup. I smile at the man who’s always sitting on a bench at the end of the corridor, but he stares back at the floor. We’re told to greet anyone who comes within five metres of us. You never know why someone finds themself in a hospital.
I pass through two sets of locked doors to get to the loading bay of the operating theatre. The corridor and its uncomfortable food smells are replaced by cold plastic floors and the sour odour of medical sanitation. There’s a yellow line on the floor which I’m forbidden to cross, marking the perimeters of the sterile zone. Beyond the line, nurses robed in ice-blue garments, masks, and caps hurry in and out of rooms. I can only see their eyes, gazing at me as I unload the trolley. Some of them ignore me all together.
I reverse the trolley out through the double doors back into the corridor, careful not to let them slam on my way out. It’s warm, and now the air smells of rosemary. I’m glad that it does.
It was a mistake, trying to bring three wheelie-bins at once. I’m struggling, grasping two handles in one hand, and one in the other. There’s no hand free to cover my eyes from the sun, and my legs are cooking in the black trousers I had to buy from Target for this job. Silverhaired couples leaving their cars scowl at me as I struggle across the bitumen towards the garbage compressor, bins rumbling as I go. I don’t like to make noise. I’m only working here a few weeks.
As I go to lift the first bag from the bin and into the chute, I hear the soft sound of thin plastic splitting. Glass bottles make a gentle thud as they land on a bed of used tissues at the bottom of the bin. Fuck—the bag has broken. I gag as the smell of rotting fruit erupts from the bag. The rip grows as I try to salvage the remnants, and something wet touches my hand. Fuck this. There’s no going back now; I squat and, grasping the bottom of the green plastic vessel, lift it over the side of the compressor. Glass smashes, banana skins slop, and plastic crackles as the contents pour into the chute. I hit the button and watch the machine eat it all up.
I hope no one saw that. I think the silver-haired couples did.
The lunch room
A shiver runs down my arms as I push the cart along the aisle. The air-conditioning is always running at full bore in the supply shed, and the place smells like plastic packaging and cardboard. I move slowly up and down the shelves, collecting the supplies listed on the sheet. Unit 3 wants two boxes of Clindamycin. I unlock the drug cupboard and scan: left to right, top to bottom. I’ve done this one a million times, but I can never remember where it is. From the other end of the shed comes a grunt that resembles the word “lunch.” The Clindamycin will have to wait.
Taking my sandwich from the fridge, I seat myself in the corner of the tiny, damp office. The chair I sit in every day has a big stain on the upholstery. It was occupied by a stack of papers before my arrival. My co-workers make their way in, cold Tupperware containers in hand, ready to be invigorated by the microwave. The small room is overwhelmed by the aroma of leftover curry and rice. Another one enters with a bag of hot chips.
I don’t talk much. One of the guys is watching a dash-cam compilation, and I nod along as they talk about cars. We stay seated right up until the last second of 12:29. The phone rings and the manager answers.
He puts down the phone and looks at me. “You gave Unit 2 the wrong fluid bags.”
I feel like I am neatly posited in a white envelope, having been laid in these crisp, coarse sheets. They make me feel a coolness, but I’m still warm. I turn my weak neck to rest the side of my head on the pillow, and close my eyes. My body is too nauseated to breathe deeply, and I’m quietly puffing through my nose. The morning light, the soft bed, and the comfort of my mother at my side distracts me from my sickness, and I drift into light sleep.
The girl at the front desk recognised me when I came in. I passed the cleaner on the way up to the ward, who gave me a vague smile when he noticed my familiar face. It’s only been a couple of months. The nurses are all very nice to me now.
I eat my lunch sitting up in bed. Steam rises as I lift the cover from the plate. It’s lasagne with roast vegetables. There’s tea and biscuits on the tray, and a cup of chicken soup.
When I go to shower, there’s no shampoo or conditioner in the bathroom. I ask my mum to get some from the nurses. “I doubt they’d have conditioner,” she says.
“They do,” I reply, “I know which shelf it’s on.”