On The Table
“Watch out for the white stuff. You see that going in, you’ve got about twenty seconds.” That’s what my friend told me. And he should know. He knocks people out for a living.
The white stuff went in at eight fifteen in the morning. I can be exact about that because I could see the clock, facing me, on the wall opposite. I remember noting the time carefully, the clean sweep of the red second hand around the circle, and clinging to that image like a person drowning.
An oxygen mask was given to me to press to my face.
“Nice deep breathes,” said the anesthetist. Her voice was soft and slow: that of a hypnotist. Or of a handler faced with a foaming dog.
I took my eyes off the clock and, steamy plastic pressed tight over flesh, looked directly at the anesthetist, watching the contours of her face as I pulled drawn-out lugs of air into my lungs. She floated above me like a benign surgical sprite.
And then, with no interim period, no sense of sleep or fug, my name was called by an unknown voice. Perhaps twenty minutes went by, and I asked multiple times if the procedure went well, if I’m allowed a cup of tea, and for my glasses. Various members of the nursing staff responded: “yes, all well; not yet; you’re already wearing them.” Repeat.
The day slipped by. A hospital bed, a recovery chair, an escorted walk from the hospital clutching a little bag of medication. Days at home passed in a slow flurry of pain and pain medication. Visitors came and went. Flowers arrived. I was a witness to the desperate hours between two and five am. And yet… that clock. The clock of the eternal eight fifteen in the morning. I thought about it all the time. It was there, behind my eyes, when I closed them (fruitlessly) at night. It was there, floating in my vision, when my sight blurred with pain and I was alone in the afternoons.
And then, finally, there came a night when I did sleep and, in sleeping, dreamed. In this dream the clock was on the wall opposite me (of course), but it no longer read eight fifteen; its stubby little arms indicated eight twenty. The anesthetist’s face had receded.
I woke up, heart rattling, curled in a tight ball halfway down the bed. The clock on the bedside table flicked “02:35” into the otherwise pitchy room. Somewhere beyond the windows a rook, disturbed from its nest, hacked a few times, and subsided. Fear, unaccountable and blunt, crept up my throat and I leant over the bed and was sick.
The next day I felt a little better. Wandering the house, quarantined, I became satisfied that the events of the previous night had been a post op fever abomination. A one off. When dusk fell I slouched off to bed, safe in the chemically sedated surety of a dreamless night’s sleep. But the image of the clock ambushed me, just as I was slipping off the edge of consciousness, and it tumbled with me, down into the darkness.
And there I was again, flat on my back, the clumsy prickling of a needle in the back of my hand, the anesthetist’s face at a distance, and that clock on the wall facing me, its hands now pointing to eight twenty-five. I tried to move, but my body was totally unresponsive; my eyes were open, but welded in position. I sensed people behind me, gathered, perhaps murmuring. There was a small, sharp clink of metal, out of sight.
Someone appeared in my line of vision. Someone wearing a surgical hat and scrubs. Someone holding something I didn’t want to look at.
I scrambled back up to reality, clawing my way out of the dream to emerge panting and bolt upright. I hobbled to the bathroom and retched into the toilet bowl. When it was over, I dragged myself up to lean on the sink, and, pulling the light cord, regarded myself in the mirror. A thin line of blood ran from my mouth, and I wiped it away roughly with the back of a hand still bruised from the needle. I went back to bed, and stared sightlessly at the pages of a book until dawn.
The next night, as darkness descended and the rooks settled, barking and fidgety, in the trees opposite the house, I resolved to stay awake. But as midnight approached pain began to uncurl its rotten tendrils, and, finally, I was compelled to swallow a couple of codeine pills. Minutes later, my head began to nod and, seconds after that, the dream opened its maw and swallowed me once again.
The bed, the oxygen mask, the anesthetist’s face, slightly receded, the clock now at eight thirty, the person, just in view, holding the thing that shall not be named. But now there is someone else, leaning over me from the side. Someone also capped and gowned, their head partly obscuring the lights and air vents above. My eyes are open, but fixed in place. They think I am asleep! The person holding the glinting thing moves to hover above me. The glinting thing begins to descend towards my mouth, which is held in place by a metal brace. They are unaware of my awareness.
Desperate, I try to fight my way free of the dream, but my mind, too, is fixed inexorably in place. Opposite me, the red hand of the clock continues its tyrant sweep.
But from the edges of my vision I see the anesthetist again. She looks directly at me, and sees my awareness. She smiles serenely, the green eyes behind her spectacles soothing and kind.
She mouths, soundlessly, just for me: “You won’t feel a thing.”