N.K. Woods worked in financial services for years but left the world of business and banks behind to study Creative Writing in the University of Edinburgh. She received her MSc in 2018 and has since had stories published by Tales From The Forest and The Galway Review. Born in Dublin and raised in Wexford, she now lives in Kildare but loves to travel, especially to Oxford, home of her all-time favourite bookshop.

In Close Quarters

A hush came over the room when the door opened. Red faces, puffy from emotion and prolonged exposure to central heating, turned expectantly. Sighs of disappointment and relief met the arrival of the janitor and his cleaning equipment, and some of the group laughed nervously and then bowed their heads, shamefaced.

Holly watched as the figure in overalls emptied the bin and sprayed disinfectant on the table. Just then she would happily have taken over the janitor’s work, if only to pass the time. She glanced at her watch, stared at the wall clock and then studied the screen of her phone. 13:03. Five hours down. She went back to her book on symphonic theory but the words blurred together on the page.

‘Is she dead?’ A man burst into the room and looked wildly around. ‘God, what am I saying? I mean is she alive? I got here as fast as I could but the train was late and the taxi got caught in a snarl up.’

‘Calm down, Pete.’ Kate hugged him, knocking her glasses askew with the force of the embrace. ‘Mam’s still with us but it won’t be long now. Sue’s in saying goodbye.’

Dropping into a chair, Pete stripped off several outer layers. He kept going until only a Manchester United jersey covered his upper body and then draped his coat across the burning radiator, adding to a vapour cloud that had already fogged up the window.

‘The Mater is tough as old boots. Don’t forget that. She’s hung on this long. I’m not giving up. Remember when that priest jumped the gun and gave her the last rites? She got great mileage that time, loved being called a walking miracle. So-’

‘Pete, the surgeon couldn’t close her chest after the operation,’ interrupted Jonathan. He spoke firmly but kindly, as if dealing with a child rather than a middle-aged man. ‘Best be ready. She’s slipping away but she’s not in any pain.’

Holly snuffled loudly and was immediately cooed over by Kate and handed a tissue. To avoid the inevitability of more kindness, she moved to the pane of glass to find an inch of privacy. Her sleeve grew damp as she wiped a section clear. Undisturbed snow covered the inaccessible garden below but beyond the perimeter, the street was covered in slush. It was a far cry from the unseasonably mild day, only a month earlier, when she’d sat in the consultant’s office and listened as he talked through the surgery and potential complications. Her role then had been to drive, take notes and hand-hold; easy jobs, if a little daunting when it came to making sure partially deaf ears understood what was being said. Still, those tasks had been preferable to waiting.

The janitor cleared his throat. ‘Excuse me, folks, but I need to hoover the floor. I’ll be done in a jiffy. If you could step outside.’ He moved towards the boy who was asleep on the sofa with headphones on and hoodie up.

‘Don’t mind Noah,’ said Jonathan. ‘Our boy could sleep through a nuclear strike.’

Kate tucked her son’s feet in, making sure they wouldn’t block the janitor’s path.

After trooping into the hall, the family gravitated towards the closed double doors that led to the intensive care unit. Holly stayed away from the huddle but lingered nearby in case she was needed. Her stomach rumbled – all she’d eaten since the vigil began was a scone forced on her by Kate, feeder and general maternal figure – but she was afraid to make a canteen run.

A muffled ping from her pocket made her curse. The extended family kept hounding her, from the comfort of their own homes, for an update. She tapped the screen, and got a pleasant surprise; an email invite from the film society to The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Valentine’s night. Her finger hovered over the accept button, but then hit decline. The fourteenth was only a week away; regardless of what happened now, she’d be too busy for a night out, or even for college.   

‘What do you mean she sent a tweet?’

Startled, Holly glanced up and saw Sue, hands on hips, by the entrance to ICU. Throughout the long wait Sue had been calm if a little subdued, but now she looked furious, glowering first at Kate and then at the phone in Jonathan’s hand.

‘I’d chosen not to tell the twins until it’s all over. But now they’ve found out on Twitter that their grandmother is about to die. How could that girl of yours be so thoughtless? And why isn’t she here? Your house is only a few bus stops away.’

The other side of the conversation was muffled by the squeak of the vacuum-cleaner as the janitor rolled it down the hall, signalling to Holly as he went that the room was ready.

‘Oh, the flu has knocked the stuffing out of her, has it?’ demanded Sue, so forcefully that the others shushed her. She continued without lowering her voice. ‘The flu, my eye. I saw her yesterday and she was fine. Bloody drama queen! Well, I hope she’s proud of herself. My pair are in bits. The semester has weeks left to run but they’re threatening to jump on a plane.’

A nurse stormed out of an office by the double doors. ‘This is not the place for arguments! Be quiet or leave.’

A nervous giggle bubbled up inside Holly but it wasn’t the place for laughter either. Both Kate and Sue began to cry. Not wanting to embarrass them, not after they’d been so kind, she snuck back to the day room.

Almost as soon as she closed the door, Noah yawned and sat up. ‘Where….’ He stopped, clearly disoriented, and then pulled his headphones and hood down before staring at Holly with an expression of vague recognition. ‘Gran?’

‘It’s okay, she’s still here. And your mam and dad are right outside.’

The answer mollified him and he lay back down, making himself smaller with every movement. Holly wished he was her brother. A sibling would be nice, even one who was monosyllabic. It would be comforting, especially now, to have someone closer than an aunt or uncle for support.

The others trooped back in, but the bickering sisters remained apart. Noah allowed his mother to share the sofa, and even stroke his head, just the once. Only Pete was missing, gone to say his own goodbyes. Jonathan picked up the newspaper and set to work on the crossword, calling out clue after clue. Holly suspected that he knew all the answers but the group effort slowly melted the ice between Sue and Kate; they even smiled weakly at one another when Noah replied Hobbit when asked what animal had horny feet.

‘Last one,’ said Jonathan. ‘Very soft in music. Begins with P. Any ideas?’

‘Piano,’ suggested Sue.

‘Mm. Too short. Ten letters.’

The bait was too much for Holly. ‘Pianissimo.’

‘Ah, so it is.’ He wrote down the answer and then lowered his pen and his voice. ‘Are you holding up okay?’

The question surprised Holly. Until now Jonathan had left her in peace, and not foisted food or conversation on her, unlike his wife and sister-in-law.

She nodded.

‘Is anyone coming to wait with you, for the final stretch?’

She shook her head.

He clicked his tongue. Sue came to sit by her and Kate stood to offer another home-baked scone from a Tupperware container. Then the door opened again, and they looked around expectantly. The hush brought on by the appearance of a nurse sent Holly’s heartbeat racing.

‘It’s time. You need to come now, if you want to be with her at the end.’

They seemed almost relieved, except for Noah who shrank by a few more inches. But after that flash of hesitation he stood awkwardly, and followed as his mother and Sue left, arm in arm. Before leaving, both women told Holly to be brave.

‘We’ll wait in the corridor for a minute and give them some space,’ said Jonathan, putting an arm around his son’s shoulders. ‘Let her children be together.’

Holly was left behind, and the nurse looked at her doubtfully. ‘If you want to see….’

‘She’s not my mine. I’m here for my mother – Joanna Cooper. She’s been in surgery since early this morning. I haven’t heard anything yet but they said it could take six hours.’

‘Let me check.’

The fear hit like a bullet once Holly was alone. She hugged herself to keep from running after the grieving family; sharing their pain would be so much easier than enduring her own.

The nurse returned almost at once. ‘She’s out of theatre. The operation went well and she’s in recovery now. You’ll be able to pop in and see for yourself soon. She’ll be woozy, mind, so just a quick peek and then get yourself home. You’ll have to do everything for her when she’s convalescing, so rest up while you can. The next month or two will be tough.’

As one weight lifted and another descended, Holly felt dizzy. Questions needed to be asked but she couldn’t think straight. Glancing at the door she hoped to see one of the family reappear to rescue her, but their waiting was over and she was truly on her own. Finally she croaked, ‘No complications?’

‘None. Your mother’s not going anywhere. She’s a real trooper, tough as old boots.’