You can see the night nurses coming before they arrive; their reflected torch lights bobbing on the ceiling as they walk towards us. Checking us, they click their dolphin lights on and off, creating brief illuminations of our floating faces. Colin says softly, "Thanks Mum" even though the nurse who's bending over his bed is half his age. He's blind and bewildered and it's not until she speaks that he remembers where he is. Before they turned the lights off, he was the first to talk. There are four of us here in this end of the men's ward and it took us most of the afternoon to begin our conversation.
"I was a commercial fisherman at Wallaroo for thirty years" says Colin, "until I lost my sight." He doesn't elaborate. Sometimes he speaks to himself in a small, worried voice - "I'm hungry. They don't feed you enough in here. Where's my bottle ..." When the nurse comes to shower him, she leads him away by the hand, his pale, saggy arse-cheeks revealed by the split in his gown. He looks like a big, hairless baby, learning to walk. "You're my eyes now, love," he reminds her. Coming back from the cubicle he says, "If you were a bit younger, I'd kiss you." She snorts, gets him back in bed and leaves. After he frets over the position of his urine bottle, coaching himself where to find it, he lies back and begins.
"I lost my son. He drowned in England. Lake Windermere. He was on holiday. The four of them went out in a boat and they didn't have the plug in the bottom. By the time they woke up to it, the boat was sinking fast. They swam for it; three got back and one didn't." We left a silence. What could we say?
"The water was very cold. That was eight years ago. He was only twenty five."
I get up to go to the toilet. Coming back past Colin's bed he asks "Nurse, can you put my call button where I can find it?" and I place it in his hand.
Tom has hard blue eyes behind thick lenses, and shreds of sandy hair growing at the sides of a bald head. He has a fit, wiry body and a left leg ending in a stump below the knee.
"I won't be in here long," he says. "Beds are for sleeping or rooting. I gotta get back to work driving the mail truck. I used to operate a lift in the mines up at Broken Hill. Eighteen years underground I was. Now I'm on the mail run out to Menindee every day. Wife's doing it, till I get fitted up with a new leg. I'll be back out there soon." He reaches for his towel. "I'm diabetic and I didn't know it. This" (he rubs the blind swollen stump) "this started as a little sore on my foot. I got it wet and the sore started growing - then the guy from the local hospital sent me home with just an alcohol rub. I blame them. It's a meat house, that hospital. When the girl saw it a week later she said 'No, you're going to the city.' It was gangrene. The young surgeon here was trying to save me foot. He took half of it off, but the old bloke - the grumpy one, you'll see him on the rounds ... he's the boss - he just said 'cut your losses' to the young surgeon. 'Take it off.' Didn't even look me in the face when he said it. Just 'cut your losses' to the other bloke. That's it."
"Is it true you can still feel your missing leg?" I ask.
"Yeah, I can still feel me toes. Like I can wiggle them."
He swivels himself off the bed and lowers his body onto his wheelchair with strong, competent movements, rolling off to the shower now that it's free. We believe him when he says he'll be driving the mail truck again. Later, his eyes lose their hardness when he tells us his wife had a breakdown in the truck last week. A drive belt broke and she lost the steering. You can see he loves her and he's worried about her doing the mail run by herself. "Anyway, I'll be out of here soon" he says, hoisting himself back into bed, willing himself, prompting us to agree - which we do.
Kevin is in his thirties; tall, strong, a tattoo of a snarling panther on his right shoulder. He's bald as well, but it's from the chemo. He's not a big talker. "I'm an electrician down at Naracoorte. Have to get some stem cells put back into me tomorrow." Like Colin and Tom, he locates himself, en-jobs himself, as if a place-name and an occupation gives him more credibililty. We can see the country in our mind's eye, the work and the man becomes more real. It doesn't sound the same from a city boy having his varicose veins removed. I don't tell them I make radio programs for a living, until they ask. We settle back to the tinny speakers on long cords that lie on our chests, carrying the distorted chatter from the TVs above our beds.
The next day, one by one, we go down to theatre. Kevin first, then it's my turn. The weird filmic angle of ceilings tracking past as the barouche rolls along the corridors - then the cliche of the wide circular lights, the men and women in face masks and rubber boots - you think "slaughter house", "meat-workers", can't help it. Then the pleasant sedative and the big knockout you don't even remember coming. The next thing is a bright recovery ward, a voice, and an arm wrapping your arm with a pressure belt. Morphine - the smiling world above the pains and the decisions and activities going on all around you. Morphine - like going down a sunlit stream on a lilo. I could easily come to like this stuff too much. I see why they keep it locked away. Though my legs are cut to blazes, I'm enjoying myself. I feel cradled - it all makes glowing sense to me; the hospital system with its rituals and meals and machines, its steel surfaces and pecking orders.
Later pain comes in ripples and wavelets, then surf breaks. The nurse is changing my dressings. Where they have stuck to the wounds, she pours on sterile water to unglue them. The water comes in little packets. She uses about thirty of them, patiently snipping them open and throwing the used plastic away. "Why don't they give you a bottle of the stuff?" I ask. "Would save a lot of plastic."
"We have to throw away the scissors too," she says.
"You're kidding, one use and you throw good scissors away!"
"Sometimes they're collected for Third World Hospitals."
Kevin stands and fills his urine bottle to the top like a bull pissing. "Jees that was a good one," says Tom. All the private functions, urinating, farting, belching, throwing up, we do in front of each other here. A bark of secrecy has been stripped away - we are barer, more raw people. Colin's bed is empty. "He might still be in recovery," says one of the nurses.
Lunch. Afternoon tea. The newsagent with his stand on a trolley. Then the night shift comes on. Still no sign of Colin. An orderly is tidying up his stuff, putting it all away in blue hospital bags. A man is reduced to these things: a toothbrush and a pair of slippers. We finally winkle it out of one of the night nurses. Colin had a cardiac arrest after surgery. They couldn't start his heart again. The three of us resume our small tasks and diversions, taking furtive glances at each other, survivors. The sun has already gone down and the grey, watery light begins to seep from the windows of the ward.