Illustration by Matt Weismantel
The Painting | Nell Tynan
A bubble, tiny and smooth, floated down the tube, around the loop, and up to Jay’s bed. When it reached the bandage wrapping his arm there was no hesitation; it flowed beneath the gauze, beneath the sticky bits of strapping, and into his vein. Jay waited. Would his pulse blimp? His vein bulge? Would he see the bubble drift up his arm? There was nothing. The bag of fluid kept running, his arm felt the same, and the white walls continued to stare.
That night, when Jay crept along the hall away from the tubes, away from the nurses with their evening gossip, there was a prickle in his chest. The bubble? It didn’t hurt or annoy; it was just there. A soft something under his ribs.
At the end of the hall, Jay pushed open the heavy door to the visitor’s lounge. Light barged through the doorway, dominating the room's dimmed fluorescents. Steam belched from the fat urn left on the sink. Above it sat the shiny hand-washing poster that accompanied every sink Jay passed in the hospital.
Be a Germ-Buster!
Wash your way to Health!
A smell of disinfectant floated over the four grey armchairs, adding its weight to the scatter of pamphlets spread across the coffee table.
Germs and the Cystic Fibrosis Patient
Give Space to Cystic Fibrosis
Stay Clean and Breathe
The door swung shut, axing the light from the hall behind. Jay walked through the dimness to the large painting hanging on the back wall. The painting, with its frame of chipped, gold paint, and its pioneer bush scene, was deemed unsuitable for the CF ward. But to Jay it was a respite from the antiseptic bossiness of the place. He enjoyed the simplicity of the old man’s camp, the canvas tent, the small fire with the boiling pot, and the rust-coloured dog with the crooked ear.
Jay moved to the side of the painting and looked back over his shoulder. Light from the hall shone through the door’s window like a square moon. As though something as wondrous as the moon was not immune to manipulation by the science of hospitals. The urn gave another belch of steam. The cushions on the four empty chairs were arranged in a scowl. The pamphlets blasted their warnings in large, bold print. Jay ignored them all, took hold of the chipped gold frame, lifted his foot, and climbed on in.
He moved quietly through the scrub and settled into his usual position behind the tangle of wattles. He watched the old man drop a broken branch onto the fire. Smoke swirled around the addition, sparks hissed. The old man took his plate and sat down against his rock, shaped perfectly to fit his back. The dog didn’t move. She hadn’t looked at Jay for days now.
Tufts of yellow, held proud by the wattles, nudged at Jay’s cheek. He brushed them away, careful to stay hidden. The rust-coloured dog flicked her half-bent ear towards him.
"Pull up a pew." The old man’s eyes stayed with the fire. His hat, stained and tattered, tipped towards a log fuzzy with bark. "There’s a log there. It won’t mind if a lad like you sits on it." His clothes were covered in grime and his boots were messed in dried mud.
Jay should leave. He should climb out, wash, and go back to his room. Instead, he moved out from the tangled wattles towards the clearing. Small twigs snapped as he passed. The dog lifted her head and thumped her tail to the dirt.
"Reckon there’s a change about." The old man kept his words to the smoke twirling around the unburnt branch.
Jay sat on the log and looked for clouds full of rain, or trees full of wind. But there were neither, just stars and still leaves. A tree stump behind acted as a backrest. His back touched the grey bark with tight muscles, causing his shoulders to crowd his neck.
"Want some tucker?"
Flavours crept from the blackened pot and danced around the camp.
Jay’s stomach squeaked yes but his head shook no.
"Good stew—wallaby." A knobbly finger pointed to a spare tin plate on a rock nearby. A beetle bumped against the tin before buzzing off to chase the smoke. "Help yourself."
Jay sat with the crackle of the fire. Flavours flicked and taunted his nose. His stomach twisted. He jumped up, grabbed the plate, and scraping the side of the pot, splashed out spoonfuls of stew. He ate with a rush, the gravy blotting his chin, smearing his arms.
With his belly full he stood, nodded to the old man, and left. Out of the frame, he went straight to the sink and ran the water hard over his hands, being careful of the bandage-wrapped cannula. He used extra soap squirts to scrub the gravy from his arms. He grabbed a second paper towel to make sure no specks of dirt were staining his legs. When he was sure he was clean, he left the lounge to the wheeze of the urn, and crept back along the hall to his room with its tubes and crisp, white bed.
The next day the doctor came by in her antiseptic perfume and facemask. Tapping her pen to his chart, she asked how he felt. Jay told her about the prickle in his chest. The pen stopped tapping. The doctor checked the small tubes shooting empty slithers of oxygen up his nostrils. She placed the cold disc of her stethoscope against the skin over his ribs. Nothing untoward. But, to be on the safe side she’d order more medication. She stopped by the door, removed her disposable gloves, and pumped the sanitizer twice onto her hands before leaving. The nurses, in their crinkled gowns, brought his afternoon medication with an extra tablet in the little plastic cup. It was small and blue with three tiny circles in the centre, like two eyes and an open mouth.
When Jay climbed into the picture that night, and the one after, and all the ones to follow, he didn’t bother to hide. He walked straight through the scrub, past the wattles and their tufts of yellow, and up to the camp. He sat on his log and waited until the old man offered him a plate. The dog thumped its tail, sending up little puffs of dust. The old man prattled on about the stew, about the dog, and about the change. Always the change, and always the when of it.
Days went past and the prickle stayed. The masked doctor stopped listening to his chest, but still removed her gloves to pump two globs of sanitizer onto her hands before leaving. The fluids still flowed into his arm, the nasal tubes still pumped empty oxygen slithers, and his tablets still came in little cups.
It was after a week of stews, on a starry, cold night, that the dog came over and sat by Jay. He tried to shoo it away, but the dog just sat there, one rusty ear half-bent over.
"Reckon Bess here thinks you waste too much stew on that chin of yours." The old man handed Jay his plate.
The more Jay tried not to spill his food the more it dribbled on his chin, arms, and legs. When he’d finished the dog reached her nose forward and licked Jay’s leg. His leg hairs crested into a miniature wave of saliva. She went to his arm next, where a blob of gravy sat beside the dirty yellow of a fading bruise. Her tongue was full of slop, her breath strong. Jay got up, retched, and ran.
The next day when the doctor came, her pen stopped mid tap. While the eyes above her mask were focussed on his chart, Jay secretly wiped his chin, checking for stew. He sniffed his arm for dog.
"Interesting." The doctor put a stethoscope to her ears, the disc to Jay’s chest. When she finished listening she said, "We might be getting somewhere." She stopped by the sanitizer on her way out.
That night, Jay balked before climbing back into the painting. What if the dog came close? What if it licked again? But something the old man said played in Jay’s head. It was about the change, about it coming from the inside, even though it seemed triggered by the outside. He said it was because what you go towards causes "it" to come towards you. Jay wasn’t sure about that, cause there was no part of him that wanted to go anywhere near that dog. But his stomach twisted, he could already taste the stew.
As soon as he sat on the log, the dog was back beside him. The old man was quiet. Jay tucked his legs tight so they wouldn’t touch the dog. When he finished his stew he asked about the change. This time the old man just smiled and said, "It happens."
Jay went to leave, but as he leant forward, Bess’ tongue met his chin. He couldn’t help but gag. Bess moved to a lump of gravy smeared on the bump of his collarbone, her tongue slippery. Jay gagged again. Bess backed off a little and sat looking at him. The prickle in his chest sharpened. It was too much; Jay needed to leave. Again, Bess reached forward and licked his face. He whipped the back of his hand across his cheek to clean it. Bess moved quickly. She licked his elbow, his shoulder, his neck. Jay lifted his chin high out of her reach. He put his hands to her neck, to stop her. To push her away. His chest pounded. The prickle stabbed. He must get out, get washed. But his hands refused to listen. His fingers wouldn’t push. Instead, they curled into Bess’ fur. Her softness. Her warmth. His arms tightened. Pulled her closer until her whole dirt-and-germ-filled body covered his.
While fear thudded, and warnings from doctors and posters swirled, all he could feel was the weight of the dog. Her paws resting on his shoulders, her tail sweeping back and forwards over his hospital gown, and her tongue, soft and careful, kissing the salty trickles on his cheek.
In the days that followed, as the doctor scratched her head and tapped his chart, Jay’s tubes were removed. His medications were reduced and "discharge" was scrawled across his record. The prickle in his chest faded to a faint buzz, one the doctor failed to hear.
Jay packed his things to leave. He carried his small suitcase along the hall past the nurses at their station. The doctor stood with them, admiring the new wall hanging for the visitor’s lounge. A print of sharp geometric lines, all shaded parallels in severe reds and final blacks.
"Much more modern; fits well with what we’re doing here." The doctor said. "That old bush painting gave out the wrong message."
Jay’s hand reached into his pocket, ferreted for a bit, and then clutched tight to a clump of hair from the rust-coloured dog.
A student of creative writing at Southern Cross University, Nell has received some competition success with her short fiction, while her non-fiction has appeared in gardening magazines.