Authors: Laney Cairo
Copyright ©2010 by Laney Cairo
First published in www.torquerepress.com, 2010
Walking to the Stars
The gurney Nicholas was pushing crashed against the wall, and the woman on the gurney winced but didn't complain, despite having every right to.
"Sorry,” Nicholas said apologetically. He was supposed to personalize each contact with a patient, using names and that sort of thing, but he'd be fucked if he could remember this patient's name. From the head of the gurney he couldn't see her files, in any case.
"Here we are,” he said. “The nice technician will take you for an X-ray now, and I'll see you back in Casualty."
"Thank you, Doctor,” the woman said, and it seemed to Nicholas that someone with a broken arm shouldn't have to be polite. A mere six weeks ago he would have been thrilled at being called ‘Doctor', but the novelty had worn off already.
"You're welcome,” he said, because at least his arm wasn't broken.
Sunlight shone through the windows in the hallway, and it seemed profoundly wrong when his body was screaming that it was the middle of the night.
But which night?
"What day is it?” he asked the nurse in the Hawaiian shirt when he'd buzzed himself back into Casualty.
"Friday,” she said over her shoulder as she pushed past him.
Hawaiian shirts. Friday. Must be casual dress day. He'd remember that for next week.
He managed to ignore the logjam of gurneys in the corridor and the staff members who tried to get his attention, and found himself stumbling up the two steps to the staff room and slumping down into one of the many plastic chairs.
Hilda, the other resident, was asleep with her head forward on her folded arms, keyboard pushed out of the way. Nicholas shoved the keyboard in front of him aside and put his head down too.
The door crashed open, and someone shouted, “Wake up! We've got another trauma bus on the way!"
It was dark when Nicholas groped his way down the hallway, completely dark, so all non-essential power must have been shut off again. That didn't matter, as long as Nicholas got some sleep.
The resident's common room had couches, cracked plastic that smelled of sweat and failure, and someone had been smart enough to prop the electronically locked door open so people could get in despite the power outage. Couches, that was it.
Nicholas flopped down on one, stethoscope still around his neck, and went to sleep.
"Do you have asthma?” Nicholas asked the man on the gurney, raising his voice to be heard over the clatter of the drip stand being wheeled into the cubicle. “Are you allergic to anything? Do you get hay fever?"
The man, with eyes too inflamed to see out of and face covered by an oxygen mask, shook his head. He couldn't speak, his throat and mouth were too swollen. Nicholas just knew his sats were going to go off and he was going to have to be intubated.
"Have you been outdoors recently?” Nicholas asked. “On a farm perhaps? Or in a park? Have you eaten anything unusual? Chinese takeaway?"
The man shook his head each time, and Nicholas felt his stomach sinking.
Damn, that was all the easy options gone. That left only hard ones and there wasn't another doctor in sight.
This wasn't supposed to happen; he wasn't supposed to be left floundering by himself, not so soon. But none of the medical staff had gone home in days, or even had a decent break. They were all sleeping on couches and the floor, showering in the patients’ bathrooms, and eating out of vending machines and even, out of desperation, off the food carts. Supervising the new doctors had become a wistful dream.
This was it: the long predicted break down of socialized medicine. If the hospitals—and it wasn't just the one Nicholas was in, it was every hospital in the city—if they didn't start leaving people to die untreated, it was just going to get worse.
The sats monitor shrieked, jolting Nicholas out of his daze, telling him the patient was cyanosed, and Nicholas stuck his arm out of the cubicle and grabbed the intubation gurney the nurse shoved at him.
This wasn't going to be pretty.
In the end, the fact that Nicholas didn't manage to get an airway in didn't matter, not when the man's lungs began to break down.
If they hadn't all been so tired—if they weren't getting patients transferred in from Darwin and Indonesia, if the hospital intranet had actually been functioning so they could read the mortality figures from the rest of the hospital—then they might have realized there was a pattern sooner.
But once someone had noticed how many deaths there were, Nicholas found himself locked inside a quarantined hospital.
At least the quarantine slowed the influx of patients down to only the people who showed signs of obvious infection.
It took a couple of days to get a protocol in place, and Nicholas was following the steps in his sleep two days after that.
The ambulance crew were in plastic suits, and they nodded sympathetically at Nicholas from behind their visors as they pushed the gurney through the automatic doors.
Nicholas wondered for a moment why the air smelled strange; it was fresh. The hospital air-conditioning no longer hummed and buzzed, and Nicholas didn't know if it had been turned off to conserve electricity, or if it was to stop the unknown contagion from spreading. Whatever the reason, the air in the hospital smelled bad now.
The patient was gasping behind her oxygen mask, so as soon as she was in a cubicle, Nicholas shot her full of midazolam and tubed her. Next was the bolus of cortisone, and the theophylline drip. They didn't have enough salbutamol left, apparently, to use it indiscriminately. Or at all.
When Nicholas pushed the woman's gurney into the transfusion unit, for her to be hooked up to the aphaeresis equipment so her antibodies could be harvested, the nurse there said, “Have you heard?"
"Heard what?” Nicholas asked.
It got harder and harder to drag himself out of bed in the mornings, and the dim half-light of the May rain didn't help. However, once Josh was crashing around in the kitchen, getting the fire going in the stove and turning taps on so that the plumbing shuddered and banged, there was no point in staying in bed any longer.
Yesterday's clothes were on a chair beside the bed, and Nick dressed in the gloom, stuffing his feet into sheepskin slippers and dragging a sweater on over his shirt.
The house was cold, not the icy cold of mid-winter, when the wind howled up from the Antarctic and he could smell the icebergs, but the pervasive damp cold that meant it was time to start seeding.
"Morning, Dad,” Josh said, and Nick sat down at the battered kitchen table and wrapped his hands around the teapot to warm them.
"Morning. You had a look at the rain gauge yet?"
"Teapot's not full,” Josh pointed out, and Nick let go of it. “And I did. We got four mils last night, and I reckon it's settled in."
Nick nodded. “Going to start seeding?” he asked. “Think it's time to put the wheat in?"
Josh shrugged, solid shoulders under a thick shirt. “Could be. I finished chaining the paddocks ready. Are you busy? Because I really need someone else with me."
The kettle hissed and spat droplets onto the stovetop. Josh picked it up using a cloth and filled the teapot on the table, put the kettle on the side of the stove, then carefully spooned in the dried chicory from the tin.
"After clinic, I have to go see Mrs. Pocock,” Nick said. “And then probably take her to Albany. She really needs a PEG, and I don't want to put one in here. Tomorrow?"
"We need things,” Josh said, putting two mugs on the table as he sat down opposite Nick and pulled the chopping board and loaf of bread across the table.
When Josh had hacked himself off a slab of bread, Nick took the loaf from him and cut off four thin slices.
They always needed things. “Eggs or porridge?” Nick asked, pushing his chair back from the table.
"Both?” Josh said. “But not at once?"
"Sounds good,” Nick said, and he reached for his raincoat where it hung beside the back door, above his boots.
Harold barked, loud and persistent, sounding the alarm about something, and Nick called out, “I'll get it!” to Josh.
Nick shoved his feet into his boots and got halfway across the verandah before he got even one arm into his raincoat.
Harold's barking was joined by sustained honking from the geese, and Nick jumped the fence around the veggie garden and took off across the paddock, broomstick in his hand.
The chicken coop was half a paddock away from the house, and while it was irritating to slosh through the mud to retrieve the eggs, the smell didn't often reach that far, and if any of the avian vectored viruses reoccurred, the farther the coop was from the house the better.
Harold yipped, and a tan dog-sized shape took off, across the paddock, Harold in pursuit.
Nick whistled, calling Harold back, and watched Harold waver, mid-lope, trying to decide whether to obey or not.
"Get back here,” Nick yelled, and Harold's snout and tail dropped, and the dog circled back around, letting the intruder run across the paddock to the tree line and safety.
"Good dog,” Nick said, patting Harold, when Harold trotted back up.
The geese came barreling up to Nick as he opened the chookhouse gate, honking belligerently, but he had the broomstick in his hand ready and took a swing at the gander, and they all backed off.
He couldn't find any sign the intruder had broken through the fencing, no feathers or corpses, and quick count showed the right number of birds. The cold weather had put the chooks off the lay, and the laying house held only four eggs; that was fine, there were only two of him and Josh.
Still, it was only four weeks until they started killing the pullets; then there'd be as much roast chicken as they could gorge themselves on.
Nick followed Harold back across the paddock, and Harold crept back onto his bedding and curled up while Nick let himself into the kitchen.
A pan simmered on the stove, meaning that Josh had started the porridge cooking before going off to chop more wood, and Nick hung his raincoat up again and put his slippers back on.
"What was it?” Josh asked, as Nick washed his hands and the eggs.
"Thylacine,” Nick said. “The small one, from the bush block. Chookhouse fences held."
"Are we going to have to trap it and move it out bush?” Josh asked, taking the eggs from Nick and cracking them into the sizzling mutton fat.
Fried eggs for breakfast. Twenty five years ago it would have been forbidden, but now no one lived long enough to worry about their cholesterol.
"We don't know the gender, or if the thylacine's got young, and we'd have to get permission,” Nick said. “If we lose any stock, we can ask, I guess. Until then, we'll just keep chasing the thylacine off the chooks."
Between the eggs and the porridge, Nick went out to his van, small shovel of coals from the fire in his hand. He loaded the coals into the burner and then piled some charcoal from the box on the verandah onto the coals. The burner would take a while to build up some pressure, but it'd run like a beauty in the wet weather.
Next trip with the shovel was to the old tractor, to load its burner up, too. Josh would want the tractor through the day, for harrowing and maybe even a little seeding.
The mirror in the bathroom was silvered and streaked, but it was enough for Nick to see in while he trimmed his beard. His hair was graying rapidly, but his beard was still black and thick. If he shaved he had an instant five o'clock shadow. He'd been chubby as a younger man, podgy and homely, but he'd lost all his weight in the army, and had worked too hard ever since then to regain it, so now his face was gaunt, all angles and hollows.
Josh was more like Nick had been as a young man, large and bulky with muscle from working on the farm ever since he'd become old enough to help out. He had Nick's hair, dark and tufty, cowlick upon cowlick, but his mother's blue eyes and fair skin.