(Image created by Glenn Osborn)
The silent young woman in bed number six is called Jasmine. So am I, but names are only superficial things, floats bobbing on the surface of the water, and we share deeper connections than that. Which is why she fascinates me - why I spend my off-duty time sitting beside her.
Today is difficult. The ward heaves with patients and I am kept busy emptying bed-pans, filling out forms, changing dressings. Finally, late in the afternoon, I get a few moments to make coffee, to take it over to the orange plastic chair beside her bed. I am thankful to be off my feet, glad to be in her company once again.
‘Hello, Jasmine,’ I say, as if greeting myself.
She does not reply. Jasmine never replies. She is down too deep.
Like me, she has been sea-damaged. I too am the daughter of a fishermen, so I bait my words like fish-hooks, cast them into her ears, imagine them sinking down through cold, dark water. Down to wherever she may be.
‘I have little time today,’ I tell her, touching her hair.
With Jasmine, it is always difficult not to touch. She is that rare thing, a truly beautiful woman. Because of this, people invent reasons to walk by. I catch them looking, drinking her in, feeding on her. They are barracuda, all of them. Wheelchair-pushing porters who slow to a crawl when they near her bed. Roaming visitors with greedy eyes. Doctors who stop, draw the thin screen of curtain, and continually re-examine that which does not need examination.
Great beauty is something Jasmine and I do not share. I am glad of it.
‘You father may be here soon,’ I say. ’Last week he said he would come.’
Jasmine says nothing. Her left eyelid flickers, perhaps.
It is two months since the incident on her father’s fishing boat, since she fell overboard, sank, became entangled in the nets. It was some time before anyone noticed, then there was panic. Her father hauled her back on board and sailed for home. When he finally arrived, he carried ashore what he thought was his daughter’s body.
‘Jasmine…’ I want her to take our baited name. I want her to swallow it.
Fortunately, there was a doctor in the village that morning, a young man visiting relatives. It was he who brought this drowned woman back from the brink, he who told me her story. She opened her eyes, he said, looked up at her father, spoke just one word - then sank again, this time into coma.
Barracuda. That is what Jasmine said.
When her father visits he touches her hair, kisses her cheek, sits in the orange plastic chair at the side of her bed and holds her hand. Like my own father, he has the big, brown, life-roughened hands of a fisherman. He too smells of the sea, and pretends he is a good, simple man.
We share so much, we are almost one.
I remember early mornings, my hair touched to wake me, my father lifting me half-asleep from my bed, carrying me, dropping me into his boat. His voice was rough in my ear, his hands were rough on my skin. I never wanted to go, but I was just a child. He did as he wished.
I remember salt water, hot sun, my mother shrinking on the shore. I remember the rocking of the boat, the screams of the gulls.
‘Jasmine, you have a life inside you. Can’t you hear it calling?’
The ward door bangs, and I see Jasmine’s father walking towards us, carrying flowers. He smiles at me.
Even in death, my own child had my father’s smile, and Jasmine’s will have this man’s. I know it.
He stops by her bed and touches her hair. Something stirs deep inside me. I watch Jasmine’s eyelids, waiting for her to bite.
£100 Prizewinner in Commonwealth Comp 2000. Recorded by Jean Binta Breeze.