How’s Barbara? is all Helen says. Nothing more than that. Nothing inflammatory, like, what’s that crazy sister of yours been up to lately, or, I heard some story from Denny about where she was last Saturday night. Definitely nothing like that. But Joanne goes tense and starts jabbing about with the little silver tongs in the sugar bowl.
Eventually, she says, Why do you ask? and her voice reminds Helen of strawberry jam spread too thin, so she replies, No reason, no reason, with a mental step back from the situation, a kind of throwing up of hands (although really she keeps her arms neatly folded to her, just under her tidy breasts.)
But Joanne keeps poking around with those stupid tongs and the sugar cubes start to disintegrate before her eyes. And this is not something she takes lightly, no, because she has not even had a chance to pour her own cup of tea, never mind put sugar in it, and she wants two lumps, two perfect lumps, and nothing else is right. And it’s a shame, yes it is, that Barbara is going off the deep end and that Joanne feels she has to take it all on, but really isn’t it time for Joanne to start concentrating on herself or maybe even just on Helen, for starters, because hasn’t she been there for her through thick and thin and then even (here she smiles to herself) through thick again? And she can’t help it, she really can’t, her hand shoots out over the sugar cubes to cover them up (to protect them) and Joanne stabs her with the tiny sharp tines of the tongs, just below the wrist.
Joanne’s mouth is a round black ‘O’, as if a thumb has punched a hole into her pastry dough face. Helen looks at her wrist. She sees: two perfect beads of blood of exactly the same size, each their own little orb of perfection, but reflecting and somehow drawing beauty from one another. She wants, in that instant, to preserve them and stare at them forever.
But Joanne grabs a table napkin, sending the cutlery cartwheeling to the floor. Heads turn. She snaps it in the air and brings it down on Helen’s hand in one smooth movement and the beads blossom and bleed into one another through the linen.
This what she must be like on the ward, Helen thinks, all efficiency and pressed patience, making emergencies evaporate into thin air, mere excuses for the exercise of professional calm. Her nurse’s uniform straining around her bulk – but containing it, controlling it, turning it into something that means something, that has a purpose. Cinched in with a tidy white belt and a shining silver clasp.
I’m so sorry, they both say, and their voices chink together like knives.