The Twilight Shift

She lifted her hand and stared at her long slender fingers. Meanwhile her right hand adjusted the engagement and wedding rings that hung round her neck on a chain. She wondered if that was it or was there still a chance that he would move again.

Suddenly there was an almighty groan from the man facing her as he heaved his broad shoulders about the bed and almost, though not quite, managed to say something. Automatically she had leant forward as if to try and hear him and just then his right hand shot up in the air and caught her left hand. His strong fingers quickly entwined around hers as their hands came down with a thump onto the side of the bed. She was startled and unsure of what to do. She tried to extract her hand but his grip was just too strong.

She looked around to see if any of the other staff were there to help her. It was no use. She was quite alone. In any case she could only see out into a small section of the corridor from the room where she sat so she could not tell if any of the staff were even there. She decided that the best thing to do was to try to remain calm and wait until he relaxed as he surely would. It might just take a while.

She glanced at the small fob watch that was pinned, upside down, to her white uniform. It was 8.40pm and she would soon be ending her shift. Her husband had probably already started to walk the short distance from their flat to the hospital with their dog. It was a routine that they had begun to make sure that she was safe coming home as another girl had been attacked just months earlier.

As she sat there waiting for the end of her day her mind wandered back to when she started nursing and to times even before that. When she was very young she had said to her mum that she wanted to be a nurse and was informed, in no uncertain terms, that she would be wasting her time. “Nursing has gone to the dogs and you won’t last two minutes in it”, she had said more than once.

From that day on it was assumed that she would never think of nursing again as a career and for many years that was indeed the case. She left school with very good grades and gained entry to a good university and graduated with an arts degree. Soon she was out at work in a variety of jobs that she hated.

After a few years of this she thought that she would give nursing a try anyway and applied to get in. While she waited for a response she began working as an auxiliary in care of the elderly at one of the local hospitals. If nothing else this would show her what nurses actually did throughout their day. The hours were difficult and the work hard and sometimes messy. She half expected to be put off just as her mother had foretold but strangely enough she wasn’t. If anything the experience made her more determined than ever.

So here she sat, in this drafty little room, holding the hand of a dying man that she’d only recently met. In the three years of training she had already consumed she had of course come across many patients who had died. At first the thought of being with the dying and the dead really bothered her and, even yet, it sometimes did. One thing that always got to her was when a young person went. It was heartbreaking for their relatives of course but nurses are meant to be above all that, aren’t they?

Somehow this man seemed to be different. It was not that he was intrinsically different from any other patients she had known. She thought about this and decided that it must be because he had shared some of his experiences with her in the last few weeks. In some strange way he had opened up a door to her that he had struggled to keep closed  for a very long time.

He told her of his early family life in Invercasseley in the Highlands and how he and his friends used to cadge lifts from passing lorry drivers to get to the town of Dornoch on the Moray Firth so that they could go fishing. He told her of the many misadventures that they had and how at one point their behaviour had come to the attention of the local constabulary. They weren’t arrested but it was a close call that he would remember for years to come.

The family had stayed in the Highlands until the late 1960’s. The move to Canada came about because his wife had relatives over there already and anyway they thought that it would be a much better place to bring up their son. He would get more opportunities over there. Initially the move seemed to be going fine. His son settled at school and was doing well and his wife made some new friends. He himself managed to find work at one of the many boat yards along the coast and tried very hard to adjust to his new surroundings. Indeed the Canadians that he got to know all made him feel very welcome. He just came to the conclusion that it would be better if he returned to Scotland. One day he shared the reason why.

“You see it would have been better if Jean had still been alive. Maybe then I would have been fine.”

His wife Jean had tragically died in a car accident in the early 1970’s in the suburbs of Ontario just two years after the family arrived. He had never quite got over this and within a few years he began the process of coming back and settling in the UK again. His son grew up and married a local girl in Canada. He stayed just long enough to make sure that his son was okay and returned home. For many years he, back and forth, visited his son and his family in Canada until his recent ill health prevented him from doing so.

In the last few weeks he spoke to her of his own impending end and spoke so calmy and nonchalantly that she sometimes forgot that it was for the vast majority of people a subject to be avoided.

She too shared some things with this stranger about her own past and told him of the reasons why she had chosen to be a nurse in the first place. It had just seemed so logical.
“My mum was a senior nurse and had been in the profession for over 30 years. Dad was a senior manager in biochemistry. It was natural that I would do something similar. I guess, in their own way”, she continued, “they were trying to protect me. Keeping me away from the harsher side of life and from things that they thought I might not be able to cope with”.

She noted at the time that she had never even spoken to her husband about how her mum and dad had tried to sway her from nursing as a chosen path. But it was somehow easier speaking to this rather tall and elegant gentleman with the soft highland accent. She supposed it was because the things that they shared were like little secrets never to be told to anyone ever again.

He rarely interupted her, instead nodding a kind of approval all the way through when she spoke about something from the heart. In the few short weeks that she had known him he had never criticised her in any way, nor offered any insights as to what he may or may not have done, if he had found himself in similar circumstances.

Once again she looked at her watch. It said 9.25pm and she began to wonder how worried her husband might be waiting just beyond the gates of the hospital. The shift had already changed over in the ward and the new staff had all been briefed about the patients and their treatment regimes. At one stage another nurse had popped her head around the door to offer to take over from her and to let her go but she refused.

“I’ll just stay another 10 minutes or so”, she said.

She looked once more at the fingers of her left hand and noticed that they were almost as blue as the patients. The man’s grip had almost stopped the blood supply reaching her finger tips.  As she struggled to remove her hand from his she was aware of a sudden change in the atmosphere in the room and glanced to the top of the bed in time to see the last flicker of life leave the his face as he heaved a further large sigh into the cold air. His hand squeezed hers for the very last time and he was gone.

Momentarily she sat in stunned silence and tried to collect her thoughts. I can get through this okay is what she was saying to herself as she slipped her hand finally from his, stood up, and bent over to check that his breathing had indeed stopped. She suddenly felt like she was going to faint and luckily there was another member of staff there just at the right time to come in and put their arm around her. Perhaps it was the touch of another human being that did it but she started to cry uncontrollably and sobbed against the other girls shoulders like she’d not done since she was a little girl.

She took a last look at the man lying in the bed as the other nurse helped her out of the room. She was taken into the staff room to dry her tears and her colleague made her some tea. As she sat there she was strangely quiet and never really spoke much about the death of the man except to say that it was tragic that none of his family had managed to be with him at the end.

Her watch told her that it was now 10.15pm and time for her to get changed and to at last go out into the cold night air. She looked forward to being wrapped in a warm embrace that she hoped would take away at least some of what had happened tonight. It had been a strangely unsettling experience, like learning that you’re maybe not the person that you thought you were for all these years.



prose © copyright Brian Shirra 2012


One thought on “The Twilight Shift

  1. Very movingly written, a story about commitment to a career and so true. My mother was a nurse and she used to tell about the patients, how she felt when one of them died. To me your story also highlights the huge divide in our society, between those who fleece others of everything they have and expect to be paid in gold, not only in their salaries but in bonus handouts, and those, like this nurse, who do the really important things which are poorly paid and who often face violence at the hands of so-called patients. Thank you for sharing this.

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