The write stuff: Linda Cracknell and Cate James

Tom's squint drawings helped to make a connection with lonely patient Ngonzi. Picture: Cate James

Tom's squint drawings helped to make a connection with lonely patient Ngonzi. Picture: Cate James

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BASED in Edinburgh’s Sick Kids, this heart-warming seasonal tale by Linda Cracknell tells of a hospital cleaner’s interest in the Ebola crisis, a seemingly lonely young girl, and the connections his kindness enables

It was break time in our basement tea-room when the TV news came on – another suicide bombing, rammies over pre-Christmas ­bargains, and then the Ebola outbreak, the Band Aid fundraising.

“Causes headaches, vomiting and is difficult to get rid of,” Jim said. “Am I describing a virus,” he paused for effect, “or that song?”

A rustle of laughter. It’s the soundtrack to every Christmas for the last thirty years, right enough.

“Don’t knock it, pal,” said Carl. “Where are they going to get the cash theirselves?”

I got up. It’s busier than ever this week, with the ­hospital sending bairns home for Christmas. As cubicles empty, they need steam-cleaning.

Carl and Jim were still bletherin as I left, just pausing to call out: “See you later, Tom.”

I can feel unseen, disappearing into a steam-haze; nozzles to walls, skirting boards, the hidden nooks and crannies. Sometimes Irene needs such details pointing out at home, especially after the grandbairns have been.

I can’t help but keek into the occupied cubicles as I push my machine down the ward. Notice maybe a crowd of visitors, get well cards, a game underway.

She was alone again. Lying still; eyes open to the ceiling. Her name above the door, Ngozi, and the braids on her head making me wonder where in the world she’s from. On the way back I saw a nurse adjusting tubes that laced her in. But there was no one sat with her. Never a mum.

That night Irene sat down, huffing and puffing, for the News at Ten. “That’s the puddings made.”

I nodded. The Ebola coverage came on. Groups of nurses and doctors standing by a plane on their way to West Africa.

“Heroes, eh?” Irene said.

Then the report went to a village. Medical folks wearing personal protection like astronauts. A stick-thin man was stretched out on a camp bed, eyes flickering in fear of a jag. And then the camera zoomed in on the astronaut-nurse, a wee bit of skin showing through the goggles – African, not one of ours. You could see, somehow, a smile in the eyes, the ­wrinkles at the corners, like they were saying: “I’m here. Don’t be afraid.”

I was thinking about it next day at the door to the ward, skooshin my hands with the sanitiser – normally done without even thinking. We learned about it in our infection control training. A sweel with water only goes so far; can’t dissolve grease. Ebola’s all about transfer of body fluids. And on the TV last night they made the point: life can be saved with a bar of soap.

This time I stopped outside her cubicle to wipe down the glass, the frames where bacteria can collect. She was propped up on pillows, dwarfed by flashing machines, her hands busy with something. Was it beads she was threading on a string?

Gill came along, hands in a fumble of cannulas and Christmas lights. “How’s yourself, Tom?”

“Nae bad.”

And she was for rushing on past but I said, “Lass is on her own a fair bit, eh?”

Gill looked in, gave a wee wave and smile. They all do their bit to keep the kiddies happy.

“Relatives I mean,” I said. She sighed. “Dad’s in nights.” And then her bleep went and she was away.

I turned back to wiping the glass. The girl was looking out, watching Gill’s back, her face thin with some sickness that’s none of my business; eyes ranging like a cornered animal.

I held my gaze on her for longer than’s like me. And she flicked her eyes to mine. A solemn wee thing. I’d no goggles on. Just a sheet of glass between us. I smiled at her. She barely blinked, took a long while to look away.

When I finished I gave a wee wave but she didn’t turn from her beads; braids on top of her head springing as she moved.

I took my sandwich to the tea-room. It was all celebrity stramash on the TV news at first. Then a nurse came on, back in London after a spell out there.

She was telling of folk stretched for hours in the backs of vans to get to treatment centres. The first ­question the nurses asked: “Has anyone died on the way?” And then she told of the time they found a woman dead in a van with her baby still held tight in her arms, alive.

I had to escape the stone and heat then. The main door slid back and I plunged out, squinting. It was one of those days that glisters for a blink before dark; before days lengthen again. On the Meadows all I saw was ­kiddies – free on a wide sunlit plain, faces glinting as they ran into the arms of mums and dads. And that mother’s absence nagged at me. Too darn busy with her Christmas shopping.

I phoned Irene. “We’ll take the bairns down Princes Street tonight, eh?”

I wasn’t taking any of her “buts”.

The sky creaked with cold and stars and all the ­illuminations on the trees, the big wheel. Amy and Ben were big enough now for Round the World, swinging in a circle of light way above the city, their screams making us laugh down below. The wee ones squabbled sweeties with each other, ran about until Sarah tripped. I lifted her up, kissed the graze on her wrist as she ­quietened, warm and heavy against me, smelling of gingerbread. Her tears were sticky on my face.

We missed the evening news that night so I went online while Irene was doing her teeth. She poked her head around the door, was frowning when I looked round.

“It’s too late to be ordering online now, isn’t it?”

“Just coming,’ I said. But to be fair I was a while. Next day in the tea-room I was saying about the buckets of ­chlorinated water placed outside churches, by wells and latrines. How they’re like our own hand sanitisers.

Jim was dunking a biscuit in his tea.

‘That’s a mingin habit,’ Carl said to him.

Jim munched on. “Ginger nuts are dead, else.”

I wanted to say how handshakes have been replaced with brushes of elbows, how they can’t kiss or wash their dead, how rumours make them feart of each other. In some places they have their hands in plastic bags for lack of gloves.

I’d watched a nurse last night. Maybe she’d forgotten her gloves were off, but she couldn’t stop herself ­reaching out for the arm of a crying mother. Later she died too, the report said.

Jim golloped his biscuit. “You Ebola tsar or summat, Tom?”

I went off again then, pushing the cleaner. Two more cubicles on my list before lunch.

She was sitting up. This time she was colouring in, crayons spilling over the bedclothes. Her wee dark eyes locked on me straight away, but she didn’t wave back. Her hand kept jotting; gave me an idea. In my pocket was one of the pens I use for marking the date on laminated labels on equipment I’ve cleaned.

I held the tip of the pen against the window. Jeez, I’d not drawn a thing since primary school. It was a bit squint, but you could tell it was a star. The expression on her face didn’t change but I saw a wee click in her eyes. I started on a Christmas tree.

Suddenly Gill was at my side taking off some reindeer antlers, putting on pinny and gloves.

“Hey there, Tom.”

As Gill went in I whisked the pen back in my pocket and turned away, sweaty hands pushing the cleaner.

That night I went online again, found outlines of things I could draw before Gill or anyone else noticed. I even practised. Three ships. Sailing by. A Robin. An angel. A partridge in a pear tree. Tricky, that one.

Then it was Christmas Eve. My star’d gone but the lass seemed almost to be expecting me.

I suddenly thought how I wouldn’t see her next day, it being my day off. I quickly drew the practised outlines, swithered over writing “Happy Christmas”. But it would read back to front for her. She watched from her pillow. Then her eyes closed. Did she even know what day it was tomorrow?

When I passed again, her blind was down. Christmas Morning and Irene birled around a kitchen full of steam, pink in the face, sleeves rolled up. Then she saw I’d my coat on.

“I’ve to nip into work.”

“Work? But . . .”

I couldn’t help but grab a cloth to wipe away some fat sliding down the front of the oven. ‘Won’t be long.’

She looked at her watch. “They’ll all be here in two hours.”

I havered then.

Her hands went to her hips; she was glowering. “You said you’d . . .”

I thought of the cubicle blind pulled down, stepped forward, gave her a great fat kiss, right on the lips.

Left her dumfoonered.

I let myself into the ward with the entry code. As I got near her cubicle, I saw the blind was back up, the door open now. The bed empty. Her few belongings were gone, but it hadn’t been cleaned yet. A cold throb came into my throat, breath locked.

I stood in the doorway and that’s when I saw him. The man, leaning in behind the bedside cabinet, looking for something.

He stood up, shirt dazzling white; smiled a greeting. “My daughter’s lost some pens,” he said. “Colouring pens. Sent me to see if they were here.”

I breathed out. “She’s been discharged?”

“We are blessed,” he said. “In time for Christmas. And you are . . ?”

“Just one of the cleaners. Came in case… I saw she was on her own a lot.” It sounded as if I was picking fault. “I mean. . .”

“It’s been difficult. I am a doctor at the General.”

I nodded.

“And her mother, well, you will have heard. Our country, Sierra Leone. . .”

The chill gripped me lower then, in my stomach. I remembered the dead woman, arms wrapping her ­babbie, put my hand to my head. “I’m right sorry.”

The man didn’t react. “She is a nurse. She’s gone back to assist. You know they need everyone, all of us who can go. She runs peer education.” He frowned slightly. “I don’t know if you have such things here?’

I laughed, stupid with relief.

His phone bleeped. When he looked at the screen a grin sprang into his face. “Look,” he said, turning it ­towards me.

A selfie. She was dressed in tangerine-coloured lace and matching head-scarf, other smiling faces around her.

“In our village,” he said, “it is in retreat.” He looked back at the screen, face solemn a moment. “Light out of darkness.”

“Aye.”

“And now I think I must get back to Ngozi and the other little ones.”

“Me too,” I said. “Turkey’s in the oven.”

He laughed. “For us it’s chicken and spicy rice.”

He held out his hand to me then. His skin was dry and warm against mine. We held there a moment and I could see from where his daughter got her eyes.

After he’d gone, I went into the cubicle. I noticed my drawings then, not yet cleaned off.

On the inside of the glass my outlines had been coloured in by a childish hand. A wonky yellow star; a long-legged robin with its breast partly red, fading to pink where the pen must have been running out and then resumed in purple; three ships she’d given blue sails to. I sat down on the bed, staring.

It was as if our shared scribble had melted the glass, sprung her from here.

Aye, I thought, they know it’s Christmas alright.

And I turned and walked towards home, so fast I was almost running by the time I opened the door into the waff of potatoes roasting, the sparkle of a Christmas tree beyond, the bairns running to greet me.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linda Cracknell and Cate James are writer and illustrator in residence at Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children, funded by the Sick Kids Friends Foundation. Find out more about the arts programme at www.edinburghsickkids.org/kreativkids . Cracknell’s latest book ‘Doubling Back: Ten paths trodden in memory’ (Freight Books) was published in May, and the latest book to be illustrated by James was ‘Desirable’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce, published last month (Barrington Stoke). www.lindacracknell.com ; www.catejames-illustration.com

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