One day I returned to my ward after physio to find a new inmate ensconced in the bed opposite and diagonally across from mine. She was apparently fast asleep but striking in her appearance for two reasons. First she was extremely pale – so much so that it was hard to discern where her face ended and the white pillowcase started. Second, her hair was cropped very short, almost shaved in appearance. Unlike the rest of us in the unit, who looked physically broken but not ill, this lady looked distinctly unwell. Our new resident slumbered unmoving through the rest of the afternoon and into the night where she remained entirely silent; unlike my other two neighbours who continued their creative efforts with air – at both ends. In the morning the ever-present curtains were whipped round as nurses bustled about behind them chatting but with no answering response from the patient. When they withdrew and the curtains were pulled back, our new neighbour was sitting upright, propped on pillows and staring sightlessly out the window beside her. Her hands rested unmoving on her covers. I looked at her. She did nothing and I mean nothing. My casual glance over became a more focused observation as I realised she didn’t appear to be moving at all. She was preternaturally still. Over the course of breakfast and my own curtains pulled experiences of the morning, I kept looking over to see if she had moved. She had not. I couldn’t even see her breathing. Demonstrating my customary sensitivity, I introduced her to my handful of Twitter followers as the Inanimate One and went off for physio.
When I returned several hours later the Inanimate One was in exactly the same position but now sporting a pair of large headphones. Other than this detail, however, she was exactly the same. I watched her out the corner of one eye for some time, waiting for some – any – sign of life. I began to suspect that she might be the hospital equivalent of that Japanese businessman who died at his desk and sat there, unnoticed, by his colleagues for several days. As the day wore on and I went in and out of the ward, I checked on her. She remained unmoving, headphones on, staring out the window. In the evening nurses bustled over to her and the curtains once more rattled round her bed. When they rattled back the IO was now in pyjamas, her headphones removed and her bed laid down so she was now staring at the ceiling. She remained like this until our lights went off, the bed curtains were drawn round again and we all went to sleep.
The next morning rolled around, along with the bed curtains and I resumed my watch. Today the IO was back to sitting upright, staring sightlessly out the window but, in a nice touch, someone had propped a Kindle up in one hand. I ran through all the reasons the medical staff might have for concealing the fact a patient had died. It was a short list, mainly consisting of preserving spinal bed spaces from dementia patients but not as short as the list of reasons for then dressing up the corpse with various props. I idly wondered what they’d do with her next. There wasn’t much to work with on the hairstyle front, the wardrobe one wears whilst permanently in bed is quite limited and it would be, I assumed, quite difficult to get someone dead to convincingly hold a magazine or newspaper.
This process went on for several days. It was a little like our own theatre production. The curtains went round, the stage was set, the singular protagonist in this case appropriately propped and then the curtains were whipped back revealing the next scene. IO in pyjamas. IO with Kindle. IO with food tray (not consumed). IO with a cup of coffee (ditto). IO with blanket. IO without blanket. IO with headphones AND Kindle. Ooooh, the drama.
Then one day I re-entered the ward and the IO was staring sightlessly out the window but now one hand flopped out of her bed and her mouth gaped loosely open. There were no props. Holy crap I thought, she really has bloody died. I wheeled slightly closer to take a look at her and watched for what felt like an age. I had just resolved to wheel myself out to find a nurse and report the IO as fully deceased when she blinked which, for her, was tantamount to rollerskating backwards and naked across the ward. Thus did the IO destroy my theory and after this she became, over the course of the next few weeks, about as animated and normal as the rest of us, which is to say, not much of either.