I have eased the blankets off. Have left the sheet up to his chin. I am soaping up the flannel. He has stubble, but Matron says I’m not to be trusted with shaving yet.
So I am soaping up the flannel. And I am looking up to the heavens, which, in my case are the creases and seams round the central tent pole. The creases, and the seams, and the flies – gathering in lazy spirals. I am trying to breath normally. I am soaping up the flannel. I will have to look at him to do this.
His chest is rising slightly. Falling. I fold the sheet down 6 inches. His shoulders are bony. I fold down another 6 inches. I stop.
So, this is a man’s nipple – peeping pinkly-new from thick black curls. I drop the flannel over this pink peep and start to scrub the mat of hair as if I am doing the floors in the dispensary. Then freeze. I have pummelled a long groan from him. I snatch up the flannel, stand back. There is a red stain through the hair – the water’s too hot. His white skin is blushing even darker than my sudden-hot cheeks. My hands are asbestos after weeks in the laundry. I dip my elbow in my bowl – youch! The ewer of cold water is heavy. I dip, pour, dip, pour, dip. Better.
I have managed another 6-inch fold down. The suds foam his chest hair, slip over his belly. A bubble blows from his belly button as if he is breathing out from there. He is mumbling, trying to turn. Please God – let the morphine keep him under. I fold the sheet down another two inches. Oh gosh, that track of dark hair leading Down There. Matron rustles in, bringing the groans, the coughing, the 4-mile-away barrage back.
She snatches the sheet off. “Crack on, Ellington, crack on!”
So, this is a man.
A rosy nest of bent pink.
Matron grabs it, lifts it up and back. “Round here, and here. Dry it all carefully. Don’t get the thigh wound wet. Don’t turn him. Crack on, Ellington.” And she forges out, her skirt snapping like sails in a high wind.
He stirs. Mutters “Bastards”. His fingers clench and relax.
Trying not to look, I wipe the flannel round his ‘reproductive organs’ – all the other words for them (words father would be horrified I now know) race through my mind.
I pat him dry, nestle him back together, pull up the sheet, the blankets, refill his water glass, then back away as I realise – he is no longer breathing.