Jennifer Burke stared at the two people in front of her. She doubted they had been listening to a word she said. The pretty, red-cheeked nurse glanced across at the tall, skinny man beside her – a doctor, Jennifer presumed, judging by the stethoscope dangling around his neck. What are they waiting for? she asked herself. Can’t they see I need help?
Then the man spoke. ‘Tell us again what brought you here, Jennifer.’
‘I’ve already explained this,’ she replied. ‘I have a headache.’ Her eyes were glistening now. ‘There’s something seriously wrong with me. Why aren’t you ordering a CT scan or something?’
The two glanced at each other once more. ‘Okay, we will take care of that,’ the doctor said, his attention never moving from Jennifer’s face. ‘Tell us how you got here, Jennifer. Does your husband know where you are?’
‘I drove myself,’ Jennifer answered. ‘Don’t tell him I’m here. Don’t tell any of them. If they think there’s something wrong with me, they will take my kids from me. I know they will. They are waiting for the right opportunity. They keep pushing and pushing so that I will break and then they can take my kids.’
More shared glances.
Jennifer continued. ‘They hate me, you see. It’s jealousy, of course. They never wanted me here. John has been completely brainwashed by them – my husband’s sisters, I mean. They cannot find out that I am sick. Promise me? If I could just get this headache sorted, I would be fine.’
Taking Jennifer’s chart from the nurse’s hands, the doctor turned to his colleague and said, ‘Why don’t we find Mrs Burke a bed in one of the wards so she can be more comfortable while she waits for her tests?’ The nurse looked instinctively at him and nodded.
Tests sound good, Jennifer thought. She needed to know what was wrong. She worried that she could have a brain tumour, or an aneurism, or meningitis. Whatever it was, she just needed to know. She needed it to stop.
Minutes later, she followed the nurse into a large six-bed ward which already accommodated five female in-patients. The middle cubicle on the left was free. Jennifer sat on the bed and watched as the nurse drew the sterile blue curtain around her. She suddenly felt self-conscious. The reality of where she was unnerved her momentarily, and she felt the need to explain the situation to the nurse, to justify herself and how she had arrived at the emergency room that day.
She really did have such a headache, she explained. The nurse smiled sympathetically. Jennifer continued to talk, rattling off the prequel to this impromptu admission to hospital: how she had been under so much stress lately, her struggle to cope, walls closing in on all sides, and this goddamned headache. Minutes passed. Jennifer was still explaining. The nurse was still nodding. Eventually, seeing the distress on Jennifer’s face, the nurse reached over, took Jennifer’s hand and promised her that everything would be all right.
In that moment, Jennifer believed her, but as she rose to pull back the cover on her bed, she heard a murmuring from the other side of the curtain. She stopped moving and listened. No, she wasn’t mistaken. She could hear a woman’s voice saying the words ‘Burke’ and ‘solicitor’ and ‘must know her’? Her blood boiling, Jennifer pulled back the curtain to witness a middle-aged woman in her nightgown, hand covering her mouth and phone, divulging the information she had collected in the past few minutes.
‘Do you have everything you need there?’ Jennifer barked in a temper. Aggressively, she took a step towards the nervous woman in the bed beside her. ‘I mean, can I help you with any personal information that you might have missed? Why don’t you invite your friend in and I can arrange an interview? What do you think of that plan, you nosy bitch!’
At that point, the nurse pulled Jennifer by the arm and sat her back on the bed, while at the same time paging the doctor for assistance. Jennifer was fuming and still ranting about the breach of privacy.
‘Well, seeing that you know I’m a solicitor you should also know to be careful what you say about me,’ Jennifer shouted in the direction of the curtain.
The doctor’s return was not before time. ‘Jennifer, how about you lie down and rest? I am going to give you something to make you feel calmer and less stressed.’
‘Will it take away my headache?’ Jennifer asked.
‘Yes, it will take away your headache,’ the doctor replied.
Jennifer complied, and in what seemed like one second, the nurse secured an intravenous line through which the doctor injected a cold, clear liquid. Jennifer felt warmer now. The bed felt softer. The nurse’s voice sounded further away. And as her eyes closed and her thoughts slowed down, Jennifer wondered what on earth she was doing there.