FICTION (May 2018)

The Red Settee

by Sally Spedding 

 

Tuesday November 14th 2017. 09.15 hrs. 

Twenty two year-old Claudia Finkelstein, trainee Intensive Care nurse at the Schelle hospital in Vienna’s 11th district, had finally completed her Spreadsheet on the three occupants of Unit 7 – a small ward overlooking a battalion of yellow waste bins outside. No view at all, really, but to those patients who arrived here and often never left, what did it matter? Or that the few bare sycamores behind the high wall stood so still, so dead? That even the foraging crows flying from their bare branches to the ground, seemed to have leaden wings.

She saved the file before furtively checking on eBay that the bid she’d entered for a red leather settee for her new studio flat hadn’t been bettered by anyone else.

Good.

Hers remained the only offer, but the whole process was making her anxious. Sometimes when she and Dr. Grun were inserting transfusion lines into a patient’s neck, she’d wonder if and when that beautiful, sexy piece of furniture would soon be hers. In fact, every time she saw blood, either lurking inside the transparent tubes or pooled into steel bowls, she imagined that padded, three-seater with its rounded corner unit, nestling in her lounge beneath soft, pink downlighters. The perfect place for her and Hans Neumann, her latest admirer, to get to know themselves better…

Suddenly, the hiccupping blue strip light over her desk warned of a new emergency on the way.

Verdammnis…

Claudia sprang to her feet. They felt oddly numb. So did her whole body, as if every single nerve had frozen. She hated emergencies. And now the light was red. Throbbing red…

Double doors hissed open, one after the other, louder too, as the trolley and its cargo drew near.

Here it comes…

Two green-clad paramedics were pushing it in unison, dark sweat maps showing beneath their armpits.

“In there.” Claudia indicated Unit 8 where a bed near the window stood empty; the under-sheet flat and clean like a dusting of fresh snow. “What on earth’s happened?” she asked while assessing the heavily-bandaged form, where only the eyes, mouth and the right arm’s basilic vein were exposed..

“Level crossing job, near the Zentralfriedhof. Suicide attempt and the train couldn’t stop in time. Female. No ID yet…” panted the bigger man with a Munich accent. “She’s in a bad way.”

And then, with their help, Claudia managed to transfer the woman’s inert form to the bed. Once the men had gone, she realised she was on her own. Doctor Grun and Senior Nurse Schiller were nowhere to be seen.

She rang the bell positioned next to the door, where fifty-eight year-old Erich Matten, her very own postman, lay tubed-up, clinging to life after a brain haemorrhage while delivering mail to Wiesengrachht’s town hall. He’d often complained about his heavy mail load, but no-one had listened. Nor even visited him. Perhaps as he slept, he felt angels’ wings brush against his cheeks. Even heard a sweetly-sung lullaby or two.  Oh yes, she’d believed in angels since she was a kid. That they could, like God, be summoned to act, or make the passing from life to death swift and painless.  However, no time now for invocations for him or the new admission lying motionless under the window. Here at the Schelle, death was viewed as a failure, and too many which were unexplained, invited investigations and media exposure. Risk of litigation.

She rang that same bell again. This time, harder and for longer. Panic kicking in.

“Don’t worry,” she then reassured her so-far nameless companion. “Help will soon be here. Meanwhile, there’s plenty I can do… ”

The patient blinked, while somewhere close by, bowels had opened.

***

“You’ve done well, Claudia,” acknowledged Dr. Grun who’d finally arrived some ten minutes later, and was checking that the legless, so-far nameless patient had been correctly cleaned up and stabilised.

“Excellent,” chimed in the Senior Nurse, smiling lip-glossed lips. Claudia had often seen her and the doctor walking together down the hospital’s corridors, hands brushing, heads inclined towards each other. She surely couldn’t be the only one who’d noticed they were an item?

“Take a break now. Rest up a while,” added her tall, curly-haired superior. “But I’m afraid we’ll need you again for the midnight shift… ”

He was, of course, feeling guilty for having left her with the task of keeping someone alive who’d clearly not wanted to live. Unaware, too, of the blame in that patient’s hard, grey eyes as she’d watched Claudia’s frantic solo efforts. 

“She doesn’t want to go on,” Claudia whispered to him and his nurse, before giving a farewell glance at the bed. “I can tell.”

Already the hospital car park was illumined by overhead strips as she ventured out into the gloomy afternoon, and, one by one, the municipal street lamps came on, casting their sickly tangerine glow over the Korrecturhaus – an institution for juvenile delinquents – and its razor-wire walls on her left. To her right, lay the rusted railings and tilting gravestones of the St Johanneskirche.

Normally, she’d have taken the short-cut to her rented flat in the Berghaus – a block of new-builds with a view of the Danube Canal – but because of those accusing eyes, the left-over stumps for legs, whose bandages had darkened to purple like two pieces of old meat wrapped in muslin, she continued until reaching one of the Ostbahn’s bridges.  

Overhead, a train growled eastwards from the city centre, vibrating the damp cinders beneath her shoes. Vibrating her heart as well, making her stop to set down her rucksack and press both gloved hands to her chest. She tried to imagine that poor woman lying on the track not far from the city’s largest cemetery, hearing the red, monster train drawing closer and closer, yet still determined to end it all.

Just then, her phone’s ‘Wachet Auf ringtone broke into her empathic reverie. Dr. Grun with bad news getting worse. Not only had their patient died, but, without any means of identification –  she still had no name.

***

Claudia tried to assess her own situation. She’d soon be fully qualified. Was this the kind of experience she really wanted for herself? One death after another? Post-mortem stress, and the rest? But seconds later, that glistening, red leather love nest had inhabited her mind. How else could she actually pay for it and everything else unless she worked?  Apart from nursing, undertaking and cleaning public lavatories, there were very few jobs available in the city. Among some a Jewish surname was still enough for doors to be closed. Even after all these years. That unlucky name her adoptive parents had so misguidedly handed down, which she should have changed…

A sly drizzle touched her skin. She quickened her pace until, at an intersection, cinder became tarmac. Turning left would take her towards Wiesengracht’s main leisure centre. Right, to the Berghaus block and on to the city centre with its tempting cafés and late-night opening shops.

Hard to choose, but she had to do something…

Most of the Physio girls went to the Leisure Centre several times a week, and they’d often invited her to join them. However, feeling herself to be too fat had led her into other less public pursuits. Tarot card and palm reading – anything to help foretell her future, considering her past had been a black hole from which she’d somehow crawled.

A couple of Lycra-clad cyclists overtook her. Then a jogger, a guy her age whose skin-and-bone greyhound was pulling him into a run, soon to vanish into the blackness under another Ostbahn bridge. And then, just as she was about to change her mind about treadmills and rowing machines, she felt a tap on her shoulder.

The kind Dr Grun would give. Urgent. Not to be ignored.

She twisted round to see a shortish, middle-aged woman buttoned up inside a

grey PVC cape, standing close by, facing her. Claudia also noticed a pair of sturdy calves encased in fleecy boots. The overhead lights yellowing the grey-brown hair and sallow complexion.  Nevertheless, everything about her was suddenly familiar. Horribly familiar. Especially the unmistakable whiff of ether.

My God…

Those same, accusing grey eyes. A tongue glistening as she spoke.

“You skinny, randy little Jew. Happy now, are you? Happy you took my life away?”

Claudia stared at the pale fury.

“I don’t know what you mean?”

“I’m Rose-Marie Neumann. Hans’s wife for thirty-two years. I read his emails. Found your half-naked photo on his phone. Recognised you immediately I’d regained consciousness. You slut… ”

Claudia shivered while cobbling her defence together. But why was she so very cold and getting colder? The same sensations as when that trolley had first arrived in Unit 7.

Schnell…

“It wasn’t my fault he preferred me to you,” she blurted out through chattering teeth. “He was so unhappy, downtrodden. Worse than a doormat… ”

“All lies!” spat his wife. “And you believed them.”

Then came a shove. Hard, unexpected. Claudia’s forehead connected with the gritty breeze-block wall. Next came a heavy kick, followed by another, bringing her down. She screamed as blows continued to batter her body. Saw that luscious red settee planned for herself and Hans to share, swell and grow behind her eyes, until red became black and another train, full of weary shoppers, grumbled overhead on its way. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sally Spedding was born near Porthcawl, Wales. She trained in sculpture at Manchester and at St Martin’s, London. Her work was in demand, but her conviction grew that words could deliver more than narrative sculpture or painting. Her poetry and short stories have won awards and have been widely published. She is currently putting together her first poetry collection, Sacrifice, which will be published early next year. She is also busy writing her fourth book in her Delphine Rougier noir crime series. Strong familial connections with the Pyrenees, Germany and Holland have provided her with themes of loss and exclusion. She is married to the painter Jeffrey Spedding and they have a house in the Pyrenees where most of her work and  (she says) her dreaming is done.  

www.sallyspedding.com