The Secret Party

Entry by: macdonald

15th March 2016
The Secret Party

Lying on her side, her heavily made-up face resting on an upturned palm, she watched our little procession move haltingly toward her. Her upper eye-lids were the same blue as her silk gown. Coal black hair, cut sharp across at shoulder level, framed her painted face.

‘Mrs Stewart,’ said Jim Booth, ‘this is David McCulloch, who starts as houseman tomorrow’. Her eyes met mine for the instant before a small, freckled, redhead, pushed between Jim and I, jumped onto the bed, and threw her arms around her mother’s neck.

‘Visiting time,’ said Jim, negotiating a route for the case-note trolley through the people pouring onto the ward. A tall man in a dark suit and an older daughter in a school blazer and summer dress also stopped at Mrs. Stewart’s bedside. In the doctor’s room, Jim summarised this last case.

‘Mrs Stewart, thirty-five. Aggressive adenocarcinoma breast. Bone and lung metastases. Thoracotomy six weeks ago; tumour unresectable. She’s terminal but watch her calcium levels anyway as Prof. will ask. Chest wound hasn’t healed. Surgeons reviewing tomorrow.’

‘Why the Cleopatra wig and make – up?’

‘Hair loss due to chemo. She was an actress; had the wig at home. A make-up artist pal does her face most days. Likes to keep up appearances for her kids. Anyway that’s the lot. I’ve got a train to catch.’

‘Thanks for showing me round,’ I said. A young nurse appeared, thick fair hair tied up under her cap.

‘Ey up, flower,’ said Jim, shifting to his birthplace dialect. ‘Dave, say how do to Staff Nurse Morag McLeod who’s coming with me to Yorkshire.’

‘And what for would I come with you to Yorkshire, Doctor Booth?’ said Morag, her Western Isles accent softly caressing the words.

‘To have lots of sprogs,’ said Jim. ‘A cricket eleven if you want.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find a nice girl for such down in England,’ said Morag, her green eyes shining, ‘but if I was to be catching a train on Waverley station at eight o’clock, I’d be gone already, I’m sure.’

‘Flipping ‘eck, I’m leaving now,’ said Jim.

‘Bye, Jim,’ said Morag. ‘Best of luck.’ After she’d gone, Jim said:

‘Lissen up, Davey boy, and I’ll tell thee summat for nowt. That lass will have your heart broke in a month.’

Next morning the surgeon arrived early. Sister pulled the curtains around as he eased off the dressing, then crouched to examine Mrs Stewart’s wound. He puffed out his cheeks, breath escaping noisily, not quite forming a word, but eloquent of disappointment.

The wound ran obliquely from her armpit to below the left breast, its edges swollen and red, gaping at both ends. Suture threads dangled uselessly and frothy, straw coloured fluid trickled down her pale skin to stain the white cotton sheets. I glimpsed a flicker of movement and pulled the pencil torch from my breast pocket, the unnatural illumination lighting up the forbidden space of her chest cavity. Deep to the ravaged lung there was a pulsing and I counted the beats of her exposed heart. Sister advanced with a new dressing. In the doctor’s room the surgeon was writing in the case-notes.

‘Bloody radiotherapists should’ve waited until the wound healed. No point in suturing it again.’ He left without another word.

‘Mrs Stewart’s going into the side room,’ said Sister. ‘She’ll need the morphine increased. Will you talk to her?’

I was unsure what to say but she greeted me quite casually.

‘You do look serious, doctor. Is it bad news?’

‘I’m afraid so,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry. Your wound hasn’t healed and stitching it again won’t help.’

‘I understand, doctor.’ I had to bend in close to hear. It was as if the air coming from her lungs was rationed.

‘Your family should know.’ I said.

‘I’ll tell my husband on Tuesday’ she said. ‘It’s Jenny’s birthday on Monday and I don’t want to spoil that.’ I nodded.

‘I hear you were an actress. Were you on the stage?’

‘Musical theatre mostly, but I was offered a film part once.’

‘A British film?’

‘It was, but I got pregnant with Jenny. I couldn’t do all the singing and dancing.’

‘Anything since?’

‘No, not after Jenny was born.’

‘We’ve increased your morphine. If there’s anything else you need just ask.’ In response she sang out quietly:

‘I’d do anything for you dear.’

‘Anything?’ I replied and she stretched out her foot.

‘Would you lace my shoe?’

‘Anything’ I repeated.

‘Paint your face bright blue?’ She pointed to her eyes.


‘Catch a kangaroo?’ and this time ‘Anything’ came from the door. Morag was standing beside the drugs trolley.

‘Go to Timbuktu?’ said Mrs Stewart and I sang:

‘And back again.’ Morag’s pale cheeks flushed pink as she handed Mrs Stewart her pills.

On the ward a little while later Morag approached me.

‘Would you have a proper oven in your flat, Doctor McCulloch?’

‘Yes, but I’ve not used it much. Not sure it works.’

‘Mrs Stewart needs a cake for her daughter’s birthday. She always does the same one. Full of lemons it is. I was thinking to bake the cake, but there’s no oven in the Nurses Home.’

‘You’re welcome to use mine.’

‘I’m on an early shift Sunday and could come at four. It’ll take an hour I suppose.’

‘I’ll be in.’

I’d fallen asleep on Sunday afternoon and the doorbell took a time to wake me. A young woman with long fair hair was halfway down the stairs when I got to the door. Only when she said:

‘Have I not gone and woken you, Doctor McCulloch?’ did I realise it was Morag.

She took off her anorak and I tried to avoid staring at the slender, smooth legs and soft curves under her blouse and skirt as she unpacked flour, eggs, sugar, lemons, a mixing bowl and cake tin onto the kitchen table. We drank tea and I gazed at her as she talked of her childhood on Harris. The cake was ready far too soon.

‘It’s perfect’ I said, but Morag’s face flushed red.

‘It’s so unfair!’ she cried out, burying her face in my chest, her hot tears soaking my shirt.

Monday’s ward round dragged and didn’t reach Mrs Stewart until five-thirty. Elegantly wrapped gifts stood on her locker. Her wig was threaded with silver filaments, her eyes freshly painted blue and gold.

‘Good afternoon, Professor,’ she said, her voice weaker, the air more keenly rationed. The Professor looked uncomfortable.

‘Bad news about the wound,’ he said. ‘Anyway, you look fine.’ I mumbled:

‘Haemoglobin seven, white cell count elevated at sixteen.’

‘Calcium levels?’

I hadn’t repeated these for a few days, but Morag passed him the graph he liked to see, that day’s figure somehow added.

‘Excellent’, he said. ‘Almost normal. Keep up with the antibiotics and fluids.’ He moved away.

‘Professor’, Mrs Stewart called as he reached the door, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.’

At seven, her room filled with visitors and birthday gifts soon littered the bed. Redheaded Louise was talking non-stop, Jennifer the birthday girl quiet and watchful. I began writing up case-notes.

‘Sorry to bother, doctor. I know how busy you are. May I enquire about Caitlin Stewart?’

‘Of course,’ I said and the old actor sat by my desk, hands folded over a gold topped walking cane. He looked smaller than he did on television.

‘Are you a relative?’

‘We were actors together. She was a great beauty, you know, and a gifted actress. We did ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’. She looks so unwell now.’

‘I am afraid she is very ill,’ I replied.

‘Is there nothing more to be done?’

‘She has an aggressive cancer, spread to her bones and lungs. We’re doing all we can.’ He was silent, his chin resting on the cane.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said ‘She needs her friends more than ever now.’

Something had caught his attention and I followed his gaze to the window. A perfect crescent moon hovered above the city rooftops.

‘Stand still,’ he whispered, ‘you ever-moving spheres of Heaven, that time may cease and midnight never come,’ then he stood heavily and limped back onto the ward.

Sister lit the candles on the cake.

‘Drop this Dr McCulloch and I’ll report you to the GMC,’ she said. I took off my white coat and rolled up my shirtsleeves. The lights were dimmed and everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’. Jennifer blushed and smiled awkwardly before blowing out the candles. Plates and forks were handed round.

‘On my thirteenth birthday there was a war on,’ said sister. ‘No eggs for delicious cakes like this.’

‘Was that the first world war, Sister?’ said Louise. Both girls had been given rings and Jenny was inspecting the inscription on hers.

‘Ask Dr McCulloch,’ said Mrs Stewart. ‘All doctors know Latin.’

‘Dr McCulloch, what does ‘Carpe Diem’ mean?’

‘“Seize the day” I think. But as I spoke I had a sense of an unwelcome visitor, loitering in the hospital’s shadowy corridors, eaves-dropping on these secrets of the living. ‘That means don’t put things you want to do off Jenny, as you don’t know what tomorrow might bring.’ I’ve sensed that unwelcome visitor often since that day and once he whispered in my ear, a burst of abuse in Dog-Latin, but when I turned my head only glimpsed the tail of his cloak at the door.

Soon the gifts were gathered, goodbyes said. Jenny loitered, fingering the ring on her finger, before returning to the bedside and carefully kissing her mother on the cheek.

‘Thanks for everything, Mum,’ she said and ran off.

As she disappeared down the corridor, Mrs Stewart coughed twice, then gave a low moan, like a wounded animal. She began rocking to and fro, sobbing in despair, blue and gold tears leaving a river of dark green on her pale cheeks and chin. Morag pushed me gently out the door and closed it. I stood there a moment, listening to Morag’s soothing voice and as the sobbing subsided I moved away.

On Tuesday morning the side room was empty, the bed remade with crisp cotton sheets. There was no sign of Morag.

‘Off sick,’ said sister.

Mr McLeod answered the door and I sat in the hall as he called upstairs, his singsong voice an octave lower than his daughter’s.

‘The maydickle prayfession are now a-sending their young men to beg you to return, so they are. One is here now a-waiting your answer.’ Morag appeared on the stairs, her eyes puffy and red, but she managed a smile at the flowers in my hand.

Thirty-six years later and we still talk about Cleopatra.
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