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by Jubbly 

Posted: 12 June 2004
Word Count: 1397

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“No don’t do this to me, you can’t, I won’t let you!” I screamed in my head, the words thundering in my ears, yet my mouth barely opened as I whispered, “Please don’t make me.”

Connie shook head from side to side like a jokey oriental pepper pot; she pulled a mock sympathy face.

“Ooh, I think little Miss Dublin’s a wee bit frightened. “

Cherry snapped back at my frozen dread.

“I bet she is, don’t mean she’s getting out of her duties.”

Connie pointed to the side room, her mouth swollen with authority.

“You got everything you need already in there off you go.”

And off I went, meekly but determined to show them I could do it.

But I hesitated at the door.

“What you say your name was girl?”

“Fionula.” I said.

“Well move yourself Fee – noola, you’ll be wanting 45 minutes for each one you know.” Barked Connie.

I pushed the swing door slightly open and took a deep breath.

She’d only been gone for a couple of hours, left all alone on her bed of death in this clinical soul numbing room. Devoid of character and familiarity. There she lay, and we left her as a mark of respect. All the colour had drained from her face and her lank blonde hair, just as lifeless as it’s owner, gathered at the nape of her neck, no more appointments at fancy salons or conditioning tonics, I would be the last to tend to it now.

My task was to lay out the body and though I knew I must begin, I just stood there, staring, listening to the other more experienced nurses laughing and chatting outside at their desk.

A chart by the bed said she was called Caroline Robinson. An apparently healthy fit woman of just 36 just a few months earlier. She’d complained of aches and pains, when they opened her up the cancer had been granted asylum, they simply stitched her right back up again and told her she had at the most six weeks.

I regained composure and moved closer to the bed barely able to look but knowing I had to.

“Hello Caroline,” I whispered foolishly.

Relieved I got no reply I set about removing her clothing.

She was so thin, the body of a child on a grown woman.

I plunged the washer into the warm soapy water, surprised that Cherry had even bothered using hot water, what would it matter now, Caroline’s discomfort was well and truly over.

I lifted up her stick like arms and cleaned her armpits, and under her neck.
I can do this I thought, I can get through it.

Caroline had faced her terror head on with bravery and resignation, and look at me, almost unable to touch her.

I thought back to my grandmother and the time we were all taken to view her in the relative’s room at our local hospital back home.

I was shocked at how her mouth hollowed out like a cave in her face.
My mother squeezed my hand and whispered, “They’ve taken her false teeth out luv, makes her look a bit odd doesn’t it?”

I dabbed her gently with a towel after washing. When I did her face I had an angels touch, I could barely bring myself to apply any pressure and I was terrified I’d pull on her eyelid forcing it open and even though I knew her eye had no vision I wasn’t absolutely sure I believed it.

I washed her emaciated thighs and gave her privates a very quick going over blushing as I did. I almost smiled, thinking about a terrible joke I remembered my dad and uncle laughing at, the one about the dead nun, returned unopened. I knew this lady hadn’t ever had children, that was in the notes, born a woman but won’t die a mother, underachieving my gran would have said.

At least I had my Frankie back home, as soon as I’d completed my training I was going to go back and marry him, we’d start a family in a few years when we’d saved enough, it was already too late for me to die a virgin but I’d make damned sure I’d die a mum, that I would.

She wore no wedding ring but instead a pretty turquoise stone set in silver clung loosely to the third finger on her left hand.

Was it an engagement ring, I wondered and if so where was her fiancé now? She’d been all alone when she passed, apparently a sister was flying in from Canada to organise the funeral, and I had to make my Caroline nice for her.

I took off the ring easily it practically fell into my hand. I placed it in a box and put it aside to be collected later.

I cleaned her feet, she had chipped coral polish on her toenails, giving the impression that suddenly something much greater than vanity had taken priority. She hadn’t bothered at all with her fingernails, it was late autumn now and I felt the toenail polish was a remnant of her last summer, a happy time when she put on a cotton dress and sandals and danced in the park sipping pints of lager from plastic cups.

When I tried to turn her to do her back I knocked into the bedside cabinet. Something shattered as it fell to the floor.

I turned over the little frame and examined the broken glass.

“What you doing in there Girl? Smashing the windows?” Connie and Cherry laughed in the distance.

I gasped as I saw the photo, it was taken in a garden, textbook nuclear family, Ma and Pa and three littluns. A snowy white haired baby sat lumpen on a blanket at the feet of it’s parents, flanking the baby were two little girls, one blonde one dark, it looked to be taken in the mid fifties I stared closely at the blonde girl, she smiled broadly and looked like the picture of health in her blue dress with white ribbons, hair tied in bunches and her pretty lacy ankle length socks. Yep I thought, that’s definitely our Caroline, the baby was a boy judging from his sailor suit and the other girl must be the much-anticipated sister now residing in Canada.

Such an innocent scene, none of them knowing what the future held. I wanted to jump into the photo and grab the little girl by the arm, shout at her, go to the doctors, have regular check ups don’t smoke, please please don’t get cancer!!

But my duties as a nurse required I only lay out the deceased and who was I to complicate my obligations.

When I’d finished I dressed her in the hospital regulation shroud, you could go barefoot in a shroud it was almost expected, shoes would look totally out of place and besides the good Lord wouldn’t be offended at this stage in the game.

I checked my watch, 40 minutes, what was I meant to do in the next five? Maybe I’d forgotten something, and then I remembered, her hair.

I lightly combed it, allowing the uneven fringe to fall over her forehead concealing those frown lines that had gathered so quickly for one so young.

When completed I listed all her personal effects and made a note of the damage I’d caused to the photo frame.

“Fee-noola!” shrilled Connie. “Get a move on girl, you’ve got the Rose room to be getting on with.”

I tidied away after myself and took one final look at Caroline. She looked so peaceful scrubbed clean of makeup and identity. Fresh and pure and all packaged up for delivery. I’d come through this with dignity and now I was going to make sure I got a hot cup of tea before tending Mr Sandringham, aged 79 in the Rose room. I walked past the nurse’s station with purpose, my initiation over and my vocation no longer a dream.

“Good girl, you done well.” Winked Connie.
“Next time one of us will go in with you honey,” laughed Cherry, “ Make a night of it, I’ll bring my playing cards and we can have a few bets.”

She never did, thank the Lord, I knew I’d crossed a line that day but I also knew when to stop.

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Comments by other Members

anisoara at 20:34 on 12 June 2004  Report this post
Jubbly --

This is fine writing. You've tackled an uncomfortable subject that's normally parcelled away on the underside of our conscious. Very effective sending a novice in to bathe the newly dead. The dead woman begins as a dead woman in a sterile room, humanised by Fionula as she bathes her - it seems she has to in order to perform such a personal task (and thank heavens!). And the last line is packed.

In fact, I want to go back through it again to see what other threads I can pull together.


Account Closed at 06:48 on 13 June 2004  Report this post
Very poignant, Jubbly
I enjoyed the observations she made as she passed over each part of the woman's body esp her determination to marry and have children.

In fact, some of these are the kind of thought we have about people who are still alive that we meet for the first time.

and I had to make my Caroline nice for her.= this is personal but you are talking about her sister flying over and I was quite surprised by 'my'. I would have used 'her' but as I say, it's personal. Later you use 'our' and that works well.

Very different from your recent stuff - not for that Scottish capital?

Jubbly at 07:48 on 13 June 2004  Report this post
Thanks Elspeth and Annisoara, yes it is different though I still tried to make her a bit eccentric, I'll take a look at those changes Elspeth. It's not for Edinburgh, but I'm working on it for a comp.



Becca at 06:25 on 14 June 2004  Report this post
Hi Jubbly, I liked 'her mouth swollen with authority,' I could almost see that. Dreadful subject, and it's certain that after a while the washers of corpses would become casual about it.
I know there are a good few stages in death other than 'rigour,' and don't know at what point the 'dressing' happens, but I wondered if her forehead would still have wrinkles, I think fluid moves about doesn't it, and fills in the worried parts of faces?
I'd have liked to have seen this more detailed and longer, and maybe with more interaction between the three women. I mean the corpse itself, although still a character, is also a trigger point for the attitudes and thoughts of the living three.

Jubbly at 06:56 on 14 June 2004  Report this post
Thanks Becca,

I've been told you have to leave the body or you're supposed to rather, about 2 hours, my nursing friend said other than the pallor at this stage the body would be just cold. I will make it longer though, with more interaction, when writing it I realised I was treading very close to 'Six Feet under' territory so I'#m trying to make it as different from that as possible. (Not the quality obviously, still reaching for the stars there.

Lots of love


matheson at 20:54 on 16 June 2004  Report this post
Hi Julie,

this was intersting and poignant...a very different take on the rite of passage (in both senses). The pace of some of the sentences seemed a bit odd to me and I wasn't sure whether this was about an "Irish" voice:

Connie shook head from side to side....
Cherry snapped back at my frozen dread.

The washing of the dead and the musing on virginity/motherhood worked really well and were believable as "meditations" faced with this new task/ the presence.

I'm afraid I found myself doing sums in my head (and dating this as 1977(ish)). This is a bad habit of mine and so probably to be ignored but the fragments of date and age encourage this kind of speculation (I wonder does it matter that the photo was taken in the fifties?)

This seemed an original take on an original (and commonplace ) situation. Hope it goes well in the compteition.



ChrisB at 12:07 on 17 June 2004  Report this post

What I liked about this story was the subject matter.

After being such a big fan of Six Feet under, what goes through the heads of people who work with dead people is of real interest.

The teasing at the beginning with the other work colleagues brought a reality to the story early on. But the part that was most poignant for me, was when the main character discovers the photo and its contents. Having lost a friend recently, one second you’re here, the next second you’re gone, and then we're left with memories. Death brings up so much. The strong feeling she had here to jump into the photo and stop the woman from smoking I felt was excellent.

Not sure if the story needs a little but more internal monologue or not to make it complete.

Nevertheless a good story.

crazylady at 23:12 on 19 June 2004  Report this post
This is a beautifully told story dealing tenderly with a difficult subject. We all have a morbid fascination for what happens after death, yet somehow don't find it easy to be openly curious.
Interesting that Fionula had to give Caroline's corpse a personality to manage to lay her out. I wonder if this would happen with subsequent cases, or if the job would ever become routine.
I loved the line " I almost smiled, thinking about...." showing that it is deemed inappropriate to smile around death.
How precious we are around something that will happen to us all. Yet we endlessly discuss sex, which in Victorian times was the great unmentionable. Now the whole thing is reversed.
I tried to upload these comments yesterday, but for some reason it didn't work.
The good news is that it gave me the opportunity to re-read it today. I enjoyed it even more on the second reading.

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