Sport 32: Summer 2004
Laurence Fearnley — Frosted Glass
There's a tree at the end of the corridor. Brightly decorated, it leans against the wall like a drunk at an office party. If I can reach it I'm almost safe, back in my room: Zimmer 446. Once there, I can climb back into bed and lie down. Rest. That's all I want to do. A tree decorated for Christmas with silver tinsel, red glass balls and bamboo stars. A blue linoleum floor and my two feet, shuffling. I pause for a rest and wait as two people in white coats stride by. They're sharing a joke, laughing aloud, but I can't understand what they're saying.
I've named her. In my mind she's ‘The Dresden milkmaid’. She's young, blonde and tall. Her breasts are huge and she's complaining about them, the pain. She's resting against pillows; a white, ice-filled cloth, nursing at her chest. She's whining to her husband. He leans back in his chair, his body nudging the edge of my bed. I watch as he scratches his scalp. A thin ray of sunlight from the window bathes particles of dandruff as they fall onto my covers. I glance outside and notice that it's snowing once more.
Late at night I hear the voice of the Russian woman. Her bed is opposite mine. She's speaking into the telephone, a sound that's low and soft, muffled by the sheets which she has pulled up to her chin. Shush, shush; it sounds like slack waves lapping the shore of a lake. She laughs quietly. It's as if she's speaking a new language: poetry. I listen to her and think that it's the most beautiful sound in all the world to fall asleep by. I am in love with her voice. I am safe in her voice. The Dresden milkmaid suddenly lets out a snore, grunts and turns in her bed. I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling.
A piece of paper taped to the wall next to the dining room lists the ten most popular boys' names for 2001. Lucas, Niclas, Moritz, Alexander, Tim, Florian, Benedikt, Noah, Christian, Philip. Inside, a woman sits at a table, her husband opposite her, as they pick silently from a bowl of sliced gherkins. Their eyes are leaden, dead from fatigue. page 190 They've been told to go home and rest but they can't leave.
The ice on the window is so thick the pane looks like frosted glass. It's minus twenty-five degrees. In the next room the window has shattered. I hear a woman scold: tut tut tut. It's thirty-five degrees in New Zealand, I lie. The milkmaid's mouth droops. She has been served the wrong meal. She looks across her bed towards my plate, then replaces the tin foil over her dinner and sighs. In Kursk it's very winter, I hear the Russian say. It's only the second time we've spoken to each other. Now, when I look at her, I recall news footage of a sunken submarine.
The milkmaid's husband is reading aloud from the newspaper. A list of world temperatures. I hear Genf, London, Mailand, New York, then, crossing the equator, Sydney. He's getting close, I think. We're next. I picture an atlas and feel excited. Me next. Home. Just a few centimetres to the right of Australia. Tokio, Venedig—his voice swings back to the other side of the world and stops at Wien.
The cleaning woman arrives. She mops the floor stepping backwards, shifting the furniture with her arse. My bedside cabinet swings into the radiator. I hear her voice: tut tut tut—and feel as if I have solved a mystery. She smiles as her hip pushes the cabinet back into place. Ausländer, foreigner, she says, pointing to herself. She smiles again and winks.
Two women stand over the Russian's bed. Both nurses. Your baby cries because you haven't named her yet, one tells her. The Russian smiles, looks at her baby, comforts it. I embrace the sound of her voice. Its beauty. The baby continues to cry. You must name her soon—before you leave hospital, continues the nurse. It's a command but the Russian appears not to notice.
The milkmaid wants the curtains drawn. The sun shines onto her bed; she can't read her magazine without squinting. She lets her magazine fall to the floor and announces that she's feeling tired. She needs to rest before dinner and the room's too bright. By a quarter to five it's dark outside. Through a gap in the curtains I watch as a doctor enters a room in the building opposite mine. He sits at a desk, his face obscured in his hands. A moment later he lifts his head, picks up his phone and nods. I watch as he rubs his eyes beneath his glasses and page 191 then he is standing once more, his phone still to his ear as he walks to the door. As he leaves the room he trips, falls forward and is gone, lost to view.
Printed onto a piece of pink paper and taped to the wall outside the dining room are the ten most popular girls’ names for 2001: Hanna, Leah, Laura, Lisa, Jana, Luisa, Leonie, Johanna, Angelina, Pauline. Inside, the woman pours a cup of tea from a thermos flask and passes it to her husband. He takes the cup and places it on the table between them. They don't look at each other. Their twins, Lucas and Hanna, are in Intensive Care. Helpless—like themselves.
An American soldier from Leighton Barracks overtakes me on the stairs. He's tall, black and has a haircut like a trimmed hedge. He's speaking into a cell phone: Man, he says, That's gotta be the longest day of my life. Man, he repeats, Kosovo was nothin’ compared to that. I forget we're in a German hospital and glance around to see if anyone else has heard. We're alone. I stand still, holding tight to the banister rail, listening, as his voice, my language, takes the stairs two at a time.
The milkmaid's body is silhouetted behind the curtain. She has her back to the room. Occasionally she touches the cloth, causing the ochre material to shudder like a sail. From where I lie she appears as a large grey shadow, her arms raised as she sponges first one armpit then the other. Something falls to the floor and her hand appears, preceded by a grunt, as her fingers crawl across the lino for a hairbrush. She can't reach it so calls for her husband. Günther, she calls. Günther. No one answers. The Russian woman looks up from her unnamed baby like a thrush alerted to a predator. Günther. Louder. I look towards the corridor, waiting for him to reappear. I'm embarrassed, caught like a visitor in a room with a ringing phone I'm afraid to answer.
Babies born on Tuesday, January 1st, 2002: Still unnamed (female), Marie Magdalena (female), Still unnamed (female), Harry Alister (male), Noa (male).
The Russian's daughter is called Angelina. I'm listening again to her late night telephone conversation when I hear the name, Angelina. The ‘g’ is hard; to me it sounds like Anger-lena. I hear her soft chuckle and close my eyes. The next morning three people come to collect her. An older woman with gold teeth, a younger woman with yellow page 192 hair, and a man with high cheekbones, broad shoulders and narrow hips. He reminds me of a gymnast. When she leaves she says: Goodbye, Good Luck. Three vases remain behind. Crystal vases filled with tea-coloured water. The milkmaid tells her husband to take them away, they're depressing. Then, turning to me, she hisses, That Russian took all the flowers. It strikes me as odd that the milkmaid should feel the need to tell me this when, like her, I have been in the room all day.
What is your baby's name? I ask the milkmaid. Luisa, she replies. I nod, unable to think of anything more to say. Luisa guzzles from her mother's name and my grandmother's name and my great grandmother's name and my great great grandmother's name. The milkmaid speaks fluent English. I didn't know.
Outside, in the middle of a small, circular lawn, stands a fir tree. It is decorated with Christmas lights. Footprints lead through the snow to the tree, then return to the path which borders the lawn. Footprints in, footprints out. Like spokes on a wheel. I've been sitting by the window for an hour, watching, but no one has strayed off the path. I keep watching.