Bohemia Village Voice  Bohemia Village Voice

For bohemians everywhere

Jane Metcalfe

Off the Fence

It had been a long shift. The old man, Mr. Alam ‘Al’ Mudassar, was in the last stages. ‘Not expected to last the night’ the ward sister had written in the notes two days earlier.
Dr Jones looked into the man’s eyes. There was puzzlement, mixed with the darker intensity of pain borne over a long period. Cancer. The man’s fingers plucked at the doctor’s jacket. His lips twitched, but there was only a rasp of air. ‘Help me’, his eyes read.
Last month, Dr Jones’ father had died of cancer. He had been unable to maintain his professional cool. At work he’d developed a bland ‘bad news’ voice. ‘Doctor, what hope is there?’ ‘How long have I got?’ He used special phrases, hollow words, honed over the years. ‘Death sentences’ they joked in the locker room – doctors and nurses going on or off long shifts.
Since his father’s death he had begun to feel the prick of tears when delivering bad news. The words tasted like unwanted food in his mouth. It reminded him of boarding school when Tricky Taylor forced him to eat his gristle. ‘It’ll make a man of you, Jones’.
He had been unable to tell his father the truth; kept him believing he would get better. ‘You’re the doctor’, he’d say, ‘you should know’, going along with his son’s game; proud that he, a mere greengrocer, had spawned a doctor.
When his father grew weaker and the pain stronger, his eyes held the same look as the old man’s. They would follow his son as he paced the room, chit-chatting about inconsequential matters: the new bird table in the garden, the price of petrol, etc. He knew what the eyes were seeking.
A nurse came over to plump the old man’s pillows up. She bent down to his ear and spoke in a language Dr Jones didn’t understand. He looked at her name tag: Fatima Kahn. The old man swivelled his eyes briefly in the direction of the voice then back again to the doctor.
“Difficult, isn’t it doctor?” she said, rearranging the bedding.
He recalled a social event last Christmas when a group of them had discussed euthanasia. There’d been a few cases in the paper concerning doctors who’d been struck off. Dr Jones remembered the Asian nurse passionately arguing for appropriate euthanasia. There was the usual diatribe from a couple of colleagues spouting the creed: Do no harm. Save lives at all costs. ‘So what do you think Frank?’ one of them had asked. ‘Oh, absolutely’. The girl had turned her dark scornful eyes on him. ‘Sitting on the fence’, they seemed to say.
Nurse Kahn watched as he prepared the morphine. The old man held him with his eyes.
His father had wanted to die at home. There was a team of nurses who came in. Near the end his father had screamed for him. ‘It’s alright Dad, it’s all going to be OK’, he’d lied, leaving the room for fear of breaking down. When he came back it was over. He locked himself away in his study and wept for hours. Why battle against the odds when it’s so obvious there’s nothing more to be done? What good was it if they all died anyway?
As he looked at the old man lying there with the unasked question in his eyes, he saw only his father. Nurse Kahn watched him pump the morphine into the drip. A faint smile passed across her features as the old man slowly shut his eyes.

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