The phone rang as Sarah was trying to coax some figures from the antiquated computer that crouched on her desk.
'It's me,' said her husband's voice, between rasping wheezes. 'My chest got worse at work. So they sent me to hospital.'
'Hospital?' she asked, alarmed. 'You mean the Good Hope?'
'I told them I didn't need to...'
'I'll come over as soon as I can. But I'll have to ask my manager.'
Immediately, Sarah's head filled with a fever of worries. Steve had been unwell for a fortnight, as an ordinary cold had developed into a grumbling chest infection. Although he had been a sturdy man, his whole body shook with coughing. However, she had not dared to suggest that he stayed off work, because they both knew that, now he was sixty, he could not admit to being ill. He had staggered to the bus stop and set off to work.
She sought out her manager, who was working in a corner. The building had been a stylish pyramid of steel and glass, but many of the windows were boarded over and the lifts broke down. Disliking the open plan office, John had built himself a shield with two filing cabinets. He arranged the papers on his desk in neat piles and the notices on the filing cabinets in straight lines.
John's mouth tightened as she explained. 'All right, you can go home. But ...'
'I might need some leave. I've checked on the chart and I've got two weeks left.'
'It's awkward, y'know. I don't think the rules allow for caring for the over 60s.'
'You don't need to tell them about Steve.'
'They'll find out.'
'Can't you just say I wanted a bit of a break?' she pleaded.
John tapped his pen on the desk. 'All right, this once. But don't do it again. People talk, y'know.'
'Thank you, thank you,' she cried and fled before he had a chance to change his mind.
Her train home set out through derelict suburbs, then halted while men worked on the track ahead. Sarah peered out of the grimy window, anxious to find out what was happening. Even when she reached Ressonhurst station, minutes passed without any sign of the bus. On a wall opposite, a tattered poster flapped. She stared at the picture of a smiling young couple and the slogan ' Every citizen a productive citizen'.
'We've been productive,' she grumbled aloud. 'Now Steve's ill, can't you give us some help?'
In the end, she walked the last mile to the hospital. A bitter wind buffeted her until she was shivering and rubbing her hands. Her thin shoes left her toes aching with cold. The Hospital of Good Hope seemed to be in need of treatment itself. Paint flaked off window frames, while the poles supporting the canopy over the front door tilted sideways. An ambulance stood in a corner of the driveway, with two of its wheels missing. As she approached, another ambulance rushed up to the door. As two workers clambered out and unloaded a stretcher, she caught a glimpse of a young boy's face under blankets.
As Sarah walked in, she felt her courage bleeding away. To her right, three women worked at a reception desk, which formed the head of a long queue. People were sitting on rows of hard chairs. Some were coughing, some nursing babies or young children, while others simply hunched in their own desolation. The smell of disinfectant failed to hide those of urine and vomit. At last, she reached the head of the queue. The young woman brushed a strand of lank hair from her face and stared at Sarah, who found herself regretting her decision that hair dye was an expensive luxury. The grey appearing through chestnut gave away her age.
'I came to ask about my husband. Stephen Patterson.'
'He's just fifty nine,' she lied.
The receptionist looked down a list in a tattered book. 'He'll be patient 5261.'
'Can you tell me where've they taken him, please?.'
'Try casualty. First on your left.'
There had been an attempt, in the past, to make the hospital attractive. Sarah walked past a courtyard where there had been a garden, but the flowers had died and the space filled with rubbish. The walls had once been a tasteful shade of eau-de-nil but now they were streaked with grey. Sarah passed a trolley on which a man lay moaning. No-one came to his aid, although people who might be doctors or nurses, judging by their uniforms, hurried past, occupied on other business. Orderlies pushed clattering trolleys towards casualty, while patients sat in wheelchairs along the corridor. She looked at each face as she passed in the hope of finding Steve. One face she flinched from, as it was covered with blood. Pools of stinking fluids accumulated under trolleys.
At last she reached a large circle of desks, where nurses and doctors milled about, like bees arriving at the hive. Sarah stood, wondering who was the best person to ask. After a while, she selected a nurse who seemed to be unoccupied. There was something about her gaunt face which suggested sympathy.
The nurse glanced at the list on the desk, then looked away. 'They'll have taken him to the Peace Room.'
Sarah felt a cold fear sweep over her. 'Oh, no! Not the Peace Room! Is there anything I can do?'
'I haven't time.' The nurse rose and clattered away.
In a rising panic, Sarah looked around for a sign, without success.
'Can you tell me the way to the Peace Room?' she asked a plump black cleaner with a mop.
'It's along there,' she pointed, 'but I wouldn't go down there if I was you.'
Sarah started to run down a grey walled corridor. She had heard about the peace rooms but had never been sure if the rumours were true. They said that every hospital had one; that patients went in but never came out alive. The conviction rose in her mind that she had to find Steve before it was too late. At last, she reached the end of the corridor and a set of plain white doors with a small sign. Then she saw Steve, lying on a trolley nearby. His face was pale and his grey hair dishevelled but his eyes met hers in joyful recognition.
'Sarah! I'm glad you could...' He was overcome by a paroxysm of coughing.
She slipped an arm round his shoulder. 'I'm so pleased to see you. I'd begun to wonder if....'
' I'll be all right.'
'We've got to get you out of here somehow.'
'I was hoping to see someone. Not sure how long I'll have to wait...'
'They haven't told you... We can't stay here. They're going to send you to the Peace Room.'
He pushed himself up into a sitting position. 'What? No. Not that. I can still work. I'm not ready for that.' He slid off the trolley, with Sarah supporting him. A few yards along the corridor, he slumped into a chair.
As nurses and doctors bustled out of adjoining rooms, Sarah tried to intercept them. 'Can you look at my husband, please?'
One after another, they shook their heads and hurried away.
'I could just walk out,' Steve suggested.
He struggled to his feet and tried to walk but was overcome by wheezing, and they sat down together on a bench. Although Sarah told herself there was still hope, tears ran down her face. As the clock on a nearby wall marked the passing minutes, she realized that she needed some way to keep up Steve's spirits, and her own. Rummaging in her bag, she found a few old photographs that she'd guarded as keepsakes for years. Armed with these, she started reminiscing about their life together.
'Do you remember how we met? That cycling holiday in Scotland, when my former boyfriend abandoned me near Inverary.'
Steve smiled. 'I'm not sure what you saw in me.'
'You were always the strong silent type.'
'I'm glad I stopped and mended your puncture.'
'And my uncle didn't make it because of the flooding.'
'Here's Lucy at six. I remember she was part of the dragon in a school play. She fell over and the whole dragon collapsed.'
Steve laughed, then coughed. It was a while before he could speak again. 'But that was before the oil ran out.'
At last, a young Asian doctor glanced in their direction as he passed. Sarah jumped up and seized his sleeve.
'Please help my husband, Doctor Khan, 'she said, reading his lapel badge.
He squatted down, listened to Steve's chest and took his temperature. 'Does it hurt when you breathe?'
'I think you have pneumonia. I'd have to do an X-ray to be sure but...'
'Can you patch me up? I might have got a few more years in me,' asked Steve.
The doctor rose.
'Can't I take him home?' asked Sarah. 'I can look after him.'
'He would need antibiotics.'
'Can you give him some? Please.'
The doctor shook his head. 'I'm afraid I'm not allowed. It's his age you see.'
'Then is that it?' asked Steve.
'Well, I think it's wrong...' the doctor sighed and took out a pad of forms. 'If you can pay for them, I can give you a private prescription.'
'I'd be grateful to you forever, doctor,' said Sarah.
He signed the form and handed it to her. 'Take it to the pharmacy. But then it's in the hands of God...'
Sarah shook Dr. Khan's hand, then set off in search of the pharmacy. At first, she took the wrong turning and found herself in a labyrinth of corridors. In every room she passed, she saw patients lying in bed, wreathed with tubes and others sitting slumped in chairs. Eventually, she arrived at a counter opening into a room lined with shelves, many of which were empty. As Sarah looked at the remaining packets and bottles, the thought crossed her mind that her determination might deprive someone else of hope.
The pharmacist crossed the room, walking with a stoop which made her speculate about his age. As she handed him her prescription he looked at her over his glasses for a long minute. However, he poured some capsules into a bottle.
'That'll be fifty pounds.'
'What d'you expect? These things are like gold dust.'
Sarah fumbled in her purse and found the money. Then she hurried away, fearing that someone might stop her and demand the return of the precious drugs.
On the way back to the Peace Room, she passed a pile of discarded equipment mouldering in a corner. Pushing aside some broken drips, she found a useable wheelchair and trundled off with it before anyone could stop her. To her immense relief, Steve was still sitting where she had left him. The door of the Peace Room remained closed.
'Let's go home,' she said. 'I want to get out of this place.'
Steve managed to take a few steps to the wheelchair. As Sarah pushed him towards the exit, she glanced round, anxious that someone would question them. However, the staff bustled about on their tasks and took no notice of a couple who might be over sixty.
Sarah faltered when she saw the expanse of grey pavement that stretched between the door and the bus stop. She couldn't allow their attempt to escape to falter here, and she doubted if anyone would miss the wheelchair, so she pushed Steve as far as the stop. Once she had helped him onto the the bench,they sat and huddled together against the cold. The sky was the colour of wet newspaper and it was beginning to snow.