This is another extract from my WIP Easy Living. To briefly set the scene, protagonist Jane, who died in 2015, has just woken up in hospital in 1920… In this novel I wanted to explore the delicious ridiculousness of being a human.
I took a deep breath, followed by another. Then another. And another. Through my nostrils, I savoured the cool, sweet draught that seemed to reach right up into the very top of my head yet at the same time down into the deepest part of my being. I breathed slowly but steadily, keeping my eyes closed. Feeling my body expanding, growing, returning to life. In, out. In, out. In, out. Then I held my breath for a moment and explored the stillness that filled me and surrounded me. Next I opened my mouth and very gently blew the breath out of my body through kiss-shaped lips. Unafraid. Because I knew I would be able to breathe in again. Energy flooded through me. With a sense of wonder and well-being I opened my eyes at last and looked up at the whitewashed ceiling. I was alive!
I looked around me. I was in a hospital room once again. But this room was completely unlike the room where I had died. There were no modern appliances. No electricity. None of the things we would expect to find in the 21st century. Apart from the white ceiling and walls there was nothing to say this was not merely some sparsely furnished room in any private house. Unless you counted the clipboard hanging on the end of the bed. The iron-framed bed I lay in, and the bare wooden table and chair were all that occupied the room.
Sitting up in the bed I remembered how much I had loved the sheets on the bed in my hospital. These were every bit as good, if not better—crisp, smooth, whiter than white and faintly scented with lavender. But now, unlike before, I was able to push them aside and swing my legs over the side of the bed, revelling in the chill that went through my body as I placed my feet on the cold boards of the floor.
How empty it was here. How quiet. None of the machines that had kept me company for so long were here for poor Margaret Stewart. Which was probably just as well, I realised after a moment’s reflection. I hated to think of alarms going off and bleeping and blipping and giving the game away. Quick nurses! Your patient is escaping! Yes, Margaret Stewart! The one who had been released from her suffering just one moment before I entered her body, driving out disease, renewing it with my own life-force – and you didn’t even know she was gone!
No footsteps hurried urgently along the corridor. No tannoyed voices called for doctors to come and resuscitate. No one thrust open the door and demanded to know why I wasn’t still dead, or rushed in and grabbed me and bundled me back into bed. But I was afraid something might happen, so I had to hurry. I found Margaret’s clothes neatly folded in a little suitcase under the bed. To me they looked very old-fashioned, like exhibits from a museum – ‘How we used to dress, circa 1920’—but I could tell from the freshness of the fabric that they were almost new, and good quality too. There were also shoes, but no warm outdoor coat, just a jacket that matched the skirt.
On top of the clothes was a small round hat made of some sort of stiff fabric and next to it a brown leather handbag which I opened. A quick look inside was enough to show me a comb, a lipstick and tiny compact, a wisp of cotton edged with lace and monogrammed, and what appeared to be a decent amount of unfamiliar currency, consisting of huge pieces of paper, large enough to write a letter on.
Humming a Billie Holiday tune to myself, I dressed as quickly as I could, my cold fingers fumbling with the unfamiliar stockings and underwear that seemed designed specifically to make my life, and that of any other woman, a complete misery.
It was dawn. Soon the ruthless nurses would waken their patients and force them to drink tea or take medicine or something. But what would Margaret’s regime be like? Surely a dying woman would be allowed to sleep in of a morning? Or perhaps she would be gently washed and have her pillows plumped?
I perched on the edge of the bed and tidied my hair, plonking the hat on my head then I made up my face, not wanting anyone to might chance to see me to be able to tell that I had just crawled out of someone else’s death bed.
When I had finished my hair, I began to apply some of the face powder with the help of the little mirror, and I took a moment to look at myself. It was the strangest thing—when I looked directly into the mirror, I saw, not Margaret’s face peering back at me, but my own face.
For a few seconds I was confused, but then it seemed obvious that I had brought my own face and body with me, somehow imbued in my spirit like an unlockable code. And I was awestruck by the beautiful simplicity of it. There seemed to be so many questions to ask now I was dead, things that wouldn’t normally occur to me. Death as I knew it seemed to present a constant stream of philosophical and psychological problems and no one had thought to issue me with a manual. But I had no more time to sit and puzzle over this any longer.
The clothes I had put on were more or less summerwear. In spite of the rigid and all-encompassing nature of the underwear, the whole ensemble was quite thin. How long had Margaret Stewart been in hospital? If only I’d thought to ask her before she’d gone off, chattering excitedly with the Receiver, a fellow dead Scotswoman.
And if only I had more time just to enjoy the simple pleasure of being in a body again, seeing things, touching things, scenting. But I had to hurry. I had to get out of here and meet up with Freddie and Sasha. And—of course—John. At this very moment they were probably in some other rooms in this very hospital, getting ready to make their escape just as I was. And how exciting it must be for them, who had been dead so much longer than I. They might only be next door! But I couldn’t go hunting for them, I had to stick to our plan.
Grabbing the handbag and heading for the door, I couldn’t help casting a look back at the rumpled bed, and wondering guiltily whether I ought to make it properly before I left. Moron, I chided myself. Just get out of here! The nurses were in for a shock when they came in and found the bed empty—tidying up would hardly lessen their astonishment.
I spared a quick prayer of thanks that Margaret Stewart was now somewhere where she would be much happier and wondered if she was struggling as I had done with getting to grips with being able to fly all over the place and have other people know what she was thinking. Judging by the way she’d taken off with Morag, everything would be fine. Anyway, it was a lot better than lying in this body in that bed and waiting as the life and health seeped slowly out of her until there was nothing worth staying for.
Ignoring the trembling of my fingers, and with a deep breath I forced myself to open the door, revealing a long corridor of blank white walls and closed doors just like mine.
‘Ms Cooper, you’re on in five,’ I murmured to myself and stepped over the threshold. Glancing in each direction, I saw the coast was clear, but which way was ‘out’? There were no helpful ‘you are here’ maps on the wall as there had been in my hospital. No signs. No phones. Not even a window. Just a small oil-lamp here and there on a small side-table. Not even any gas lighting.
What was it my Sunday school teacher used to say? The steps of the fool turn always to the left? I went right, hoping for the best, wondering what I would say if I met anyone. More importantly, what would they say to me? Suppose I was arrested? Or worse still, they refused to believe I was alive and buried me? And how the hell would I ever find my way out of this place?
The corridor eventually opened out into a larger room, a kind of gallery-shaped reception area at the top of the stairs. At a desk piled high with files, drinking tea and chatting with their backs to me, sat two nurses in long skirts with long starched white aprons over the top and hankie hats like huge white butterflies perched on their heads. Nervously I began to tiptoe past them towards the stairs. Just as I was convinced I had made it, they looked round and saw me. They eyed me curiously but without suspicion. Now I had to put on a really good act!
‘Good morning.’ I smiled broadly at them and hoped they wouldn’t be able to hear the surprisingly vigorous pounding of my heart. Not bad for a woman on her deathbed.
‘Morning, madam,’ they chorused in return, smiling pleasantly. But they did not return to their conversation. They were watching me expectantly. I felt obliged to say something else.
‘Er—this is the way out, isn’t it? Down these stairs?’ I tried to make myself sound calm and confident. But they seemed to find nothing peculiar about a woman wandering around the hospital at sunrise.
‘That’s right, Madam, turn right at the bottom then left through the double doors,’ one of them said.
‘Thank you very much.’ I turned and forced myself to walk at what I hoped was a dignified pace across the remaining seemingly acres-wide floorspace to the head of the stairs but I was a bit unsteady on my feet in the unfamiliar little heels and I kept slipping on the floorboards. Even the noisy tapping of my heels sounded guilty in the quiet of the hospital. I began to descend, clinging tightly to the rail, and expecting at any moment to be stopped. I had reached the bottom before I realised I was still alone.
I turned right as directed, went a little way along a corridor identical to the one above, lined with those same closed white doors, then sure enough, there on my left were the double doors. I could see through the little porthole windows in the doors that beyond them was the sky, rosy in the morning sun. I was free!
I pushed through the doors and found myself face to face with a formidable-looking nurse sitting behind another desk. She was again clad in that vast white, all-concealing uniform. She was typing up reports on a typewriter that looked like a collector’s item.
She looked up and eyed me curiously, but said nothing. Over to me, I thought and smiled nervously. Instinctively I knew this one was not going to be fobbed off with an ‘ooh is that the way out?’
‘Good morning,’ I began cautiously. The nurse returned the greeting pleasantly but added nothing. My turn again, I guessed and took the plunge.
‘Could you possibly call me a cab? I’m ready to leave now.’
She appeared rather startled by this, but said simply,
‘I’m very sorry, Mrs—er?’
‘Stewart. Mrs Stewart.’ I didn’t feel I’d said enough, so I rushed into a hastily concocted explanation, accidentally going into a kind of Eliza Doolittle-impression. ‘My father had another one of his turns last night and they called me in, but he’s improved a bit this morning, so we’re sure he’s going to last a bit longer. I’ve got to get home and cook my Harold’s breakfast now. I’ll be back to see Dad this afternoon.’
‘Of course. I’m so sorry about your father Mrs Stewart. But I’m afraid there is no telephone here. The hospital has only the one and that is in Admissions, on the other side of the hospital. But there is a bus-stop just outside here. I expect you came in by bus?’
‘No, actually, I came in the…’ I had been going to say car, but now I panicked. Would someone like me be likely to have a car in 1920? Possibly, but maybe not… ‘My Sidney brought me in on his bicycle.’
She looked at me in some surprise. I’d said the wrong thing, of course, but I’d panicked and it was too late to go back now.
‘Er—on the—er on the handlebars.’ I added, feeling hot and stupid. The corner of her mouth twitched and I could see she was trying not to laugh at the mental image this conjured up.
‘I see. Well, goodbye for now, Mrs Stewart.’
‘Goodbye and thank you so much for all you’ve done for Dad.’ I told her very sincerely and then I walked in the direction of the big front door with the little dignity I could muster, and she watched me go, clearly uncertain whether the right member of my family had been admitted. As I exited, I heard her typing once again on that beautiful old black typewriter that was, in 1920, undoubtedly state-of-the-art.