It was a Thursday in December when Tim Gray drove his wife to the hospital. He escorted her through the entrance with one arm round her shoulders, giving her small squeezes of encouragement all the way. She walked slowly, her head down, and asked him to stop pinching her.
“I’m not pinching you,” he said, removing his arm from her shoulders.
They went up in the lift to the cardiac ward and met a large woman in a tight uniform at the entrance. She introduced herself as Nurse Crowther, but only, Tim noticed, to his wife.
“Follow me, Mrs Gray – you’re in room fifteen. We’ve all had to hurry to get it ready for you.”
Tim came as well, despite being ignored. They walked along corridors smelling of stewed offal and stale bodies before coming to room fifteen. It was a bleak cell with a bed, a handbasin with a mirror above it, and a visitor’s chair. The window overlooked the car park.
“We’ll get your preliminary checks out of the way first,” said the nurse, wheeling in several computers on carts. “Remove your top and sit down, please.”
Tim’s wife took off her jumper and perched on the bed in her shabby beige bra and jeans. Since no one had offered him a seat, Tim settled in the visitor’s chair to watch all the fuss. At one point a doctor joined the nurse and they both flapped about with wires, stickers and clips, scrutinising the computer screens the whole time. The doctor left the room without uttering one word to Tim, who felt tired and fed up. He crossed his legs at the knee and began twitching his foot.
Nurse Crowther, her stickering tasks complete, rounded on his wife. “There’s no need to look so frightened, Mrs Gray. I expect the surgeon explained the risks of your operation, but you should remember you’re in good hands here.” She bustled out.
His wife didn’t reply. She remained motionless on the bed while the posse of machines stalked her hidden inner failures. Tim turned his face to the window. All the lucky commuters were leaving the car park and driving home. Street lights flickered on. He should be home too but instead he was here, because he was a devoted husband.
“Tim, could you pass my bag?”
He could see his wife’s ghostly reflection superimposed on the street outside. She was pointing to her handbag, but he decided he hadn’t heard her.
“Tim?” she said. Then, “Never mind.”
She stood, took a few careful steps – as far as the wires would allow – and stretched for her bag.
He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry. You’re in good hands at this hospital.”
“That’s what the nurse just said. Couldn’t you give me any comfort of your own?”
“I’m sorry. I – I – I am trying my best.” He turned back to the window and saw his wife take a packet of tissues from her bag – and not offer him one. Bristling, he folded his arms and carried on jiggling his foot. Bronchial coughing drifted through the walls.
A few minutes passed before footsteps approached. Tim jumped up, crossed the linoleum and was dropping a kiss on his wife’s hair as Nurse Crowther came in again.
“Well, isn’t that nice, then?’ she said. ‘Cheer up, Mrs Gray – hubby will take care of you!”
Tim delivered his boyish smile; wide mouth splitting to reveal sharp teeth. “Hubby certainly will,” he ruffled his wife’s hair until it stood up in ludicrous tufts. “She’s in good hands with me.”
“Here’s a form for Mrs Gray to sign,” the nurse dropped a clipboard on the bed. “I’ll be back in a few minutes to collect it.”
As she left, Tim bent close to his wife and said into her ear, “Would you like me to get your bag for you?”
Her shoulders sagged and she sighed. Put her head in her hands.
“Would you like me to get your bag for you?” he said again.
“I’ve already got it, Tim. You saw me get it.”
“I didn’t, actually. But anyway… So long as you’re alright.”
He walked to the mirror where he leaned on the sink, gazed into his eyes and heaved a long sigh.
His wife continued staring at the floor.
He made a small whimpering sound.
She didn’t respond.
Finally, he said, “You know… It’s not going to be nice, going home to an empty house day after day… And driving all the way here after work, in the dark. Not nice at all.”
There was still no reaction from his wife, and he felt a surge of annoyance. He glanced at her in the mirror. Fat tears were sliding down her cheeks now, and his annoyance turned to anger. He was the victim here. He was the one being ignored and disrespected. He looked again at his wet-faced wife and ground his teeth. Waited.
Eventually, she took a shuddering breath. “I’m scared, Tim. I don’t want to die, but even more I don’t want to end up… There are worse things than death.”
“Don’t talk about dying,” he snapped, then regretted it. Assumed his mask of concern.
“Won’t you hold my hand?” she said. Her reflection held out both hands towards his back. Her nose was red now, oozing snot into her open mouth.
“Tim – please?”
He turned and walked towards her until he saw relief spread across her face: the pale flash of exposed underbelly. He sidestepped and sat in the visitor’s chair.
“I’d better not touch you,” he said, regarding her with hard eyes as his mouth curved upwards. “I wouldn’t want to disturb any of your connections.”
She screamed at him then. Told him to get out, called him names – even threw her pillows. He batted at them with helpless hands and whimpered loudly. How angry she was. So angry! He cowered, relishing the warm familiar rush of victimhood in his veins. She all rage, he all martyrdom. His oil painting in the locked room.
But her tantrum didn’t last long – they never did, these days. She liked to pretend she was tired all the time, like some overblown dying swan. As he straightened, he saw she was in her usual state: slumped over, sobbing, a mess. One of her wires had come lose and an alarm sounded. Or he assumed that was why an alarm was sounding – he didn’t care either way. He was replete now with her anguish; the previous indignities of the evening forgotten.
He sauntered over and looked down at her. “I love you,” he said, injecting a little tremor into his voice. Perfect.
Nurse Crowther was hurrying up the corridor as Tim strolled down it.
“Is your wife alright?”
“I’m afraid she’s angry at me again.” He made a sad shape with his eyebrows. “I – I – I’ve tried to comfort her, but I can’t seem to do anything right…”
The nurse touched his arm. “Well, I think she should be grateful she’s got a husband like you.”
“Thank you,” Tim’s voice faltered with grief. “That means so much to me.” Hanging his head, he trudged along the corridor and round the corner.
The lift doors opened for him as he arrived. He stepped inside, punched the button for the ground floor and checked his hair in the mirror. Began whistling a jaunty tune. A blonde woman with rather nice legs got in at the next floor. Perhaps this hospital visiting wouldn’t be so bad after all.
This was an exercise in character study and took at least twenty re-writes before I was happy. Well, semi-happy. I wanted to stretch myself by portraying a character on two levels: the surface persona in stark contrast to what lies beneath.
My first attempt was too subtle, resulting in some readers feeling sorry for Tim! So I re-wrote it, making the clues stronger and also revealing more of Tim’s thoughts. I’m not sure if I prefer my first, more subtle, effort or this piece… The first piece was more realistic in that it showed Tim as a stranger would see him – with no internal thoughts to give away his true character. But I’m posting this version because I want the character to come across as clearly as possible, even though this Tim probably has more self-awareness than a real covert narcissist would have. Or perhaps I should say: more self-honesty.