It was the smell that first let me know where I was. The air was laced with the scent of alcohol, so for a moment I thought that for some unknown reason I was lying in bed in a distillery. It took a moment before I recognised it not as the scent of beer, wine or whiskey, but of alcohol based disinfectant. Hospital, I thought. Further investigations, all made without having to open my eyes, seemed to agree.
I could feel something clipped to my finger and reaching across, found it was connected to several long, thin tubes. Probably to measure my blood pressure or heart rate. A faint beeping emanated from the direction in which the tubes wound and though I could not trace their origin, I was sure it came from the machine they were connected to.
Faint moans could be heard all around, some the cries of those in pain, others the groans of sheer boredom. One unseen person close by was in the midst of a coughing fit, I could just imagine them doubled over and unable to speak. The only other sound to be hear was the muted mumbling of a television, turned up loud, but far enough away that the sound could only just be caught.
The mattress I lay on was too thin, allowing the springs to stick painfully into my back. If I found bruising when I got up I would not be surprised. The bed linen had been starched one too many times and was rough under my fingers. I could feel my skin, itching and rubbed raw by the blankets. Yes, definitely a hospital.
Cautiously, I opened one eye. The lighting was low, with only a couple of strip lights turned on and the rest sitting dormant. The ward was large, but crammed full of beds, though I could see very few of their occupants as curtains swathed most of the beds in a mantle of mint green. Through a small window at the end of the ward, the sky was dark, though still blue and not black, implying that it was late evening. Still, the time of day explained the quiet and the lack of visitors, as well as the low lighting. Visiting time was probably long over and most of the patients asleep.
Hospital. No, I didn't remember arriving here. I remembered the headache, I remembered my last conversation with Araera, I remembered her admitting she would kill me if it meant getting her life back. After that, not much. A room where everything was white and feeling too hot, much too hot. I think I must have screamed several times, because I have lots of memories of people telling me to be quiet. People I ignored.
So I had been ill. It wasn't surprising, Araera had warned me. Most of my memories seemed to be of a private room; I'd probably been put there because of the noise. They must have moved me to the ward when I started getting better, I didn't remember.
Where was she? Araera? She'd said she couldn't leave me, but she was nowhere here. What had happened to her. Had she left and slipped back into invisibility when she'd seen what she had done?
"I know that however selfish it might be, I'm willing to risk you to get my life back." She'd meant that. She had a conscience, I'd seen the pity in her eyes, but she'd buried it deep enough for it not to trouble her.
I needed to talk to someone, to find out what they thought had been wrong with me, or still was wrong with me; how long I had been here.
I got out of bed quietly, not wanting to wake the other occupants of the ward. I discovered I had been dressed in red and white striped pyjamas, of the same itchy material as the blankets. I'd probably developed a rash if my skin had been exposed to the material for too long.
My feet pattered lightly across the linoleum as I headed for the pair of swing doors at the end of the ward. In the bed across from me, a small boy of maybe six or seven doubled over as if he was about to wretch, then exploded into a coughing fit. So he had been the one coughing earlier. It was amazing it didn't wake anybody up. They were probably all used to it.
Pushing through the doors, I emerged into a completely unmarked corridor, with many other passages leading off it in all directions. I made a mental note to punch whoever was in charge of putting signs up. There wasn't a single one in sight, so I had no idea where to go.
The faint sound of irritating music, most likely a television theme tune, floated down the corridor. That would be the television I had heard earlier. It came from a passage to the left, which I took, followed by a sharp left and another right. I could ask whoever was watching to find the doctor who was in charge of my ward.
Reaching the end of one corridor, I found a small door with a tiny window set in it. It was one of those windows fitted with a plastic imitation of glass inexplicably ruled with lines which serve no apparent purpose other than baffling all who see them as to the reason for their existence.
Rising slightly onto my toes, I peered though the glass to find three nurses sitting round a desk, lounging around in office chairs with their legs crossed on the tabletop, sipping expresso from three large corrugated cardboard cups. Papers were stacked in folders on shelves, untouched. A computer had been pushed to the corner of the desk to accommodate a small portable television, the screen of which was displaying a burly tattooed man being yelled at by a thin girl with a high ponytail and oversized hoop earrings, who stood with her hands on her hips staring straight up at him.
A soap opera, because caring for patients always comes second to East Enders. First the nursing assistant, now these three. Did anyone in nursing actually care about their patients?
I knocked hesitantly on the door, but it was at this moment the girl with the big earrings chose to slap the irate tattooed man and storm out, extracting a small round of applause from the nurses which effectively drowned me out. If a patient started screaming, or a heart monitor flatlined and beeped to try and alert them of a death, would they hear?
I decided not to ask them. Most likely they would have no idea who I was and would just send me back to the ward. I decided to cut out the middle stage and get straight to failed attempts to sleep in the same room as the coughing boy.
Now, which corridor was it I needed to take back to my ward? Unfortunately, there was nothing to guide me back the way I had come. If I'd had a penny, I would have used the penny hike method, heads for right, tails for left; but I would still have had the problem of which right and which left.
In the end, I decided to close my eyes and spin round, before thrusting my arm out at random and taking the corridor at which my finger pointed. Like all the others, it was white and unmarked. What did this place have against signs?
Small rooms lined the walls, but all were dark except for one at the end. Though it was clearly not the way to my ward, I was curious to see what was in it. I would use an attempt to find my ward as an excuse for looking inside. I didn't know why I was so keen to look in, I would normally just walk past, but for some reason I wanted to see what was inside.
I stepped up to the window and peered surreptitiously through. Inside, a girl of about my age lay on top of the covers of her bed, staring straight at me. A girl with long, tangled light brown hair and pale blue eyes. It couldn't be seen on her face, but I felt shock as she caught sight of me, her surprise matched only by my own. She looked tired and I'll, but she was still clearly recognisable.
Araera. She had followed me after all; and of all the rooms to look in, I had picked hers.