Behind the reception desk a lady in a long uniform fondled the cross that hung from her neck. As Peter rushed past, the flowers in his hand shed stray violet petals that floated through the white corridors. Everything was white; walls, floors, ceilings and furniture. Even the tubular lights gave off a pale light, soft and unobtrusive. Lines of people in white gowns were ushered by ivory clothed staff.
In his panic, Peter soon found himself lost in the hospital’s sterile corridors. There were no signs, and no voices; only the pleasant sound of soothing music that played on hidden speakers. Around his neck his collar was constricting, and he adjusted it with his free hand, loosening the top button and stretching the loop of his tie. He spun in a circle, eyebrows raising and forehead wrinkling. To his left and about twenty metres straight, an elevator door caught the distorted reflections of passing people. As he grew closer, his own reflection began to twist into shape upon the metal; mustard trench coat and vibrant gladiolus the only semblance of colour on his otherwise dull outfit. The elevator was empty when he stepped inside, and he took the opportunity to settle his nerves.
In the elevator’s mirror, he saw his light brown hair plastered against pale skin. His eyes seemed somehow empty. Just tired, he told himself. As the elevator travelled higher, his vision blurred, the reflection of himself becoming fainter. He shook his head as if to rattle away the fatigue that brought moisture to the bottom of his eyelids.
When the call came through Peter had been traveling back from a business trip. Stupid to even go, with a wife eight and a half months pregnant. But they needed the money and he needed his job. He had taken the call on the side of the road, having stopped for a weak petrol station coffee. Thinking back now, Peter recalled he had forgotten to pay for that coffee. Heck, he’d forgotten the coffee entirely. It probably still sat next to the doughnuts and pastries where he had left it. He felt a moment of guilt and hoped the attendant wouldn’t be in trouble for his mistake.
Still, Peter’s mind had been occupied at the time and, with trembling hands and a mix of emotions, he had rushed to the hospital. The fifty or so miles he had seemed a world away but nevertheless, here he was, less than three-quarters of an hour later. And somewhere in this hospital were his wife and baby. He felt the moisture in his eyes thicken and he wiped at it with the back of a hand. The elevator seemed to take an age. How many floors had he gone up? The maternity ward was only on the third.
You’re just nervous, he told himself. He squeezed shut his eyes and tried to picture how his baby might look. Was the birthing already finished? Was his wife ok?
“Come on!” he shouted at the four walls around him.
The elevator doors slid open and Peter quickly rushed into a brightly lit room. Around him were people. They moved towards him, but their faces were obscured by the new light which seemed to be unnaturally bright. Peter blinked and blinked until his eyes adjusted.
A bearded man, white hair and wise eyes stood tall and slightly stooped and giving off a gap-toothed smile. “Hello, Peter.”
“Grandfather?” Peter frowned. Why was he here? Peter hadn’t seen the man in years. Not since…
Peter shook his head. “What’s going on?”
Peter’s grandfather smiled again. It was warm and inviting and softened the age of man’s face. Behind his grandfather other family members shuffled forwards. They all wore the same smile, a smile which forced Peter to return with one of his own.
“Where is she?” Peter asked when nobody answered his first question.
“Peter—” a woman Peter recognised as his aunt Lily began. Another long ago seen relative.
“What is it?” Peter picked up on the concern in his aunt’s voice. “Why are you all here? Why are there so many people? What’s going on?” With each question, his voice grew slightly louder, slightly more desperate.
“Peter…” a hand fell on his shoulder. It was tender and comforting and Peter could feel some of his worries evaporating. “Your wife is fine Peter.”
Relief, heavy and immediate, flowed over him like cold water, giving him a burst of energy. “Then where is she?”
“We can take you to her, Peter.”
“Then take me!”
“But first there is something you must know,” his grandfather continued.
“What is it?” Peter was beginning to grow frustrated, his eyes scanned the crowds behind his grandfather, hoping to spot a parent of a member of staff.
“Where do you think you are?”
The question was strange and unexpected and brought Peter’s gaze back to the tall man before him. “What? I’m at the hospital. What is going on!” he demanded, pushing past his grandfather and deeper into the large, rounded white room. There were so many people. They sat on white chairs or stood in silent groups. Some he recognised from long ago. Others he didn’t. Where were his parents, his siblings? They were the only ones that should be here. The room branched off in different directions and Peter spun and spun.
“Peter,” he heard his grandfather call after him. “Peter, wait.”
“Where are you Peter? Tell me where you are.”
He frowned. Around him, his family merely stared and smiled silently. Nobody else drifted through the room. No doctors or nurses. No cries of shouts or any of the sounds one might associate with a hospital ward.
“Where are you Peter?” The voice seemed to come from within his own mind this time. The hospital lights grew brighter and brighter until it seemed as if two of the lights were coming for him. He squeezed shut his eyes and threw up an arm against the glare.
Where am I? Something loud and piercing rumbled through his mind. The lights grew brighter, even behind closed eyelids. Other shapes began to materialise, and Peter found himself behind the wheel of his car once more. The night around him was dark, the roads wet and heavy with fog. His eyes grew heavy and weary, but the surrounding landscape shot by with great speed. He knew he had somewhere to be and he pushed his car on, faster and faster. The lights seemed to come closer; the sound grew louder.
Peter recognised the noise then. It was the blare of an advancing horn.
“No!” He threw up his hands, just as the truck would have hit. Eyes flaring open, Peter looked upon the room with fresh eyes.
“I’m sorry, Peter.” His grandfather was beside him. His face inches from Peter’s own. A face Peter had known since childhood. A face he hadn’t seen since his grandfather’s death nearly three years ago. Aunt Lily too was gone, he remembered. A heart attack had taken her just last year.
“No! This is just a dream!” Peter shouted.
His grandfather shook his head slowly. “Peter…”
“Take me to them! Please! I have to see them.”
“I need you to tell me where you are, Peter.”
In his hand, Peter still clutched the flowers. The same flowers he had picked up from the petrol station. He had been lucky to find them really. Gladiolus had always been Emily’s favourites. She had filled their small house with them. They didn’t have a big garden or even a big house. But Emily, sweet, loving, creative Emily, had turned their small space into an arboretum of various flowers and plants by reusing old pots and containers and, Peter’s personal favourite, an old shipping pallet.
He felt his heart leap into his throat. “I can’t be here. I can’t,” he whispered.
“I’m so sorry, Peter. I cannot take you until you accept what has happened.”
“No! I can’t leave her! She has a baby. She needs me. She needs me,” he repeated. He felt his voice wobble in his throat. “She needs me,” he sobbed openly.
Someone hugged him. His hands opened and purple flowers fell to the floor. Purple settled on cold white.
“I can’t be dead.” But the words were weak and lacked conviction.
“It’s ok. It’s ok. Let go, Peter. Let go and you can see her.”
His mind flashed back to their first meeting when she had sat beside him on a crowded train and shown him her book of dried flowers. Peter hadn’t understood it, but he had enjoyed her excitement over something so simple. How quickly their lives had changed, how easily he had fallen in love. They’d rented a small flat together not long after, and with news of her pregnancy that flat had been replaced by a slightly larger but considerably more expensive house. And so Peter had taken a new job to pay for that house. A job that saw him spend more and more time away from home. A home that, on its top floor, had a room that smelled of fresh paint. A room in which a crib sat empty and alone. Waiting. Opposite was a bedroom that contained a large bed, meant for two.
“She needs me.”
“You cannot help her now Peter.”
Peter pushed away. “Don’t say that! She needs me! You don’t understand.”
His grandfather’s eyes glimmered.
Peter’s head spun and spun as he looked for some way out of this nightmare. Some unseen door that would take him to his wife and child.
He spun and spun until he could spin no more and then he fell instead to his knees, where he sobbed until it hurt, and his body ran dry. “Please,” he looked up at his grandfather. “Please, tell me she will be alright,” he begged.
“Even now her family are with her. She will not be alone, I promise you.”
“I have to see her.”
“Then let go.”
“I don’t know what that means.
“Yes, you do.”
Peter closed his eyes, his knees still resting on hard tiles. Visions of Emily tumbled through his mind as if all his memories had been gathered up and poured from a mountain top.
Her smile. Her old shoes painted, of course, with flowers. Her hug and the warmth of her breath. Her bad tea and worse cooking. The way she said his name or how she cried at almost any tv show or advert with a dog. Her terrible, frustrating inability to tell stories without starting in the middle and rambling backward until she had suitably confused everyone.
The way she said I love you.
“I love you.” And with those words, Peter felt himself. Perhaps for the first time. Not the flesh of his body, but the thing that lay beyond that. It was as if two parts of him became separated, the flesh falling lose from the energy that powered it. Peter, the real Peter, was no more solid than the clouds in the sky. He detached easily and floated upwards as the world around him softened and changed. The walls slowly fell away and, though the white remained, it was no longer sterile and empty, but full and welcoming. And as the world transformed, so too did Peter’s pain lessen.
“I’m proud of you, Peter.”
Peter’s eyes fell upon a tall man, young and broad-shouldered. “Grandfather?”
The man nodded his head. “This is how I looked when I was your age.”
Peter gave a slight smile. He shared Peter’s dad’s eyes and too-large nose. “Can I see her?”
“Of course,” his grandfather smiled. “Just look down.”
Peter did so. He looked into a world of solids as if he were stood upon a balcony that hung over a model city. Below him, a group of people dressed in blues huddled over a hospital bed. Peter recognised Emily’s mother, and her nervous, pacing father. A nurse’s head fell away, and Peter stared once more into the eyes of his beautiful wife. She looked so tired, and yet a smile lit her face. Peter saw why and he smiled himself. Goodbye became stuck in his throat, as the sound of a baby’s cry tore at the air.