this is just work by jadamthwaite

7 Feb

Karen smoothes her crisp white coat down over her hips and pinches her lips together like a drawstring bag. This never ever gets any easier. It shouldn’t get easier. She pushes into the swing doors and treads softly across the shining tiles.

He is where she expected him to be, hunched inside that same red shirt, staring at the back of his wife’s head as she tries desperately not to blame him.

Karen doesn’t want to talk to them. She keeps her footsteps light and quiet, each step small and measured. She glances down at the stethoscope hanging round her neck and notices the thumb print that’s been bothering her all day. She tries to wipe it away with her cuff but it’s stubborn. She breathes in deeply. This is just work. This is work. This is work.

Missus stares solidly out the window at the courtyard. Her eyes have drowned in unending tears, leaving only their pallid, stony shells to connect her with the world. Her hair hangs in a rugged ponytail and she huddles deep inside a thick grey cardigan. Mister comes and goes, tangled somewhere between grief and guilt. Sometimes he reaches out for his wife. Sometimes he folds himself into his own body and stares at one spot for hours and hours. Sometimes he leaves the hospital altogether, the squeak of his shoes chasing him through the corridors and out the front doors.

Karen has tried to imagine how she would feel… but she can’t do it. Every time she starts to catch the pain, she stops and remembers something lovely about her own children. Now, as she quietly crosses the waiting room towards these desperate parents, Karen has to swallow her own feelings like vodka shots.

This is the worst part.

She feels in her pocket for a carefully folded square of tissue, runs her thumb round the stiff corners. She grasps it firmly, ready: the only thing she can offer them.

She thinks of all the trivial things she’s done today: yelling at the kids because they were going to make her late if they didn’t hurry up; ironing Sadie’s school shirt again because she’d creased it somewhere between her bedroom and the breakfast table; rearranging the jars in the cupboard because no one ever remembers to leave them with their labels facing forwards; checking her hair in the wing mirror for the third time and swearing when she noticed her hair slide was chipped; complaining about how the rain stained her shoes and cursing the state of the coffee cups in the canteen…

If she could do today again, she wouldn’t iron Sadie’s shirt. She wouldn’t shout at them for messing about upstairs. She wouldn’t waste precious minutes organising the cupboard. She’d hug them both and take those last moments of them like vitamins, bathe in them and store them away in little parcels to savour later.

Karen’s heel clunks suddenly against the dusky green floor and Missus turns around sharply. This is it.

Karen doesn’t have to say anything.

Missus knows.

Her grey eyes widen for a second like a frightened animal before they brim with tears; she pounds her fists against the glass and lets out a small shard of scream.

Mister stares ahead, a single tear spotting his red shirt like a dark bullet. He doesn’t move. Then, suddenly, his breath rushes into him as though he’s a sail caught in a storm and he crumples in his chair, his face contorted into knots and deep, endless creases. He searches Karen’s face for a small shiver of hope, his autumn brown eyes pleading silently for her help.

Karen lowers her head.

“I’m so sorry,” she says softly, her words melting into the last of the day’s sunlight and trickling across the floor like syrup.


Links to Catching Breath


7 Responses to “this is just work by jadamthwaite”

  1. ingridfnl February 7, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    You have some beautiful images in this story: the thumbprint, him folding into his own body (a wonderful image of grief…), her questioning her own rigidity. Great story.

  2. juleshg February 8, 2010 at 5:00 pm #

    This is absolutely heartwrenching. I love the contradictions between what seemed so important (the labels and the creases in a shirt) and the grief facing these parents

  3. Parenthesized February 11, 2010 at 9:07 am #

    Great piece. I think Karen is much more honest about her inability to completely empathize with Missus and her husband. She has never lost her children, so she cannot tell someone that she knows how they would feel. I like that detail.

  4. jadamthwaite February 15, 2010 at 7:36 pm #

    Thank you all. Once I realised Karen was the nurse, I found it quite hard to find the opportunities to sneak the little character details in. I really like how each prompt presents its own challenges!

  5. phoenix.writing February 21, 2010 at 6:31 pm #

    This was very evocative; I really felt with Karen, walking closer and closer with each word of the story to having to having to make the horrible announcement. I’m left wondering if Karen will change her behaviour (How many times has she had to make these sorts of announcements?) and if Graham will ever visit the park again.

    • jadamthwaite February 21, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

      Interesting questions… Karen, I think, will not change. I think she’s someone who clings to her routines and then hates herself for it. Things like this put life in perspective for her but she finds it hard to act on them. I’m less sure about Graham. I feel sad even thinking about him…

      Thanks for your feedback!


  1. catching breath by jadamthwaite « the character project - February 21, 2010

    […] Links to This is Just Work […]

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