The Intensive Care ward of the Macquarie Harbour Hospital was much like I expected it to be. Sterile. Cold. Smelling of disinfectant. Lots of machines going ‘beep… beep… beep…’
Nurses and doctors were rushing here and there.
Anxious family members fearful of what was happening with their loved ones.
Then add to that the occasional sound of crying or wailing.
When I first came here two weeks ago, following Ben’s accident, it was a very scary place. Now it’s almost like a second home, but not a home that I really want to live in, let me tell you.
Everything that has happened from that day to this has been something of a blur.
First there was the news that Cye’s old boat was overdue and that there hadn’t been any contact with them for several hours. I remember getting a call from Scott, then rushing down to the wharves with both Luke and Tim where we met up with him. A short while later Guy joined us as well and the five of us ended up waiting there for the remainder of the day, Scott telling us that everything would be okay, Tim and I desperately clinging to each other, just hoping and praying that everything was okay.
When the wild and wet day turned into a miserable and even wilder night, and there was still no word, I think that was when we all started fearing the worst. I thank God that Scott was there with us, though. He was, and has continued to be, a real tower of strength for us all.
We spent a sleepless night huddled around a heater in an office built into one of the boatsheds beside the wharves, and when sunrise came at least it brought with it some calmer weather. There was still no word on the fate of the ‘Wanderer’ and her crew, however, and so the State Emergency Services clicked into gear and resumed the search they had started the previous afternoon, sending out a plane to scan the oceans, while most of the other boat owners also joined in to help.
While this was happening all we could do was to wait. We drank coffee. We paced up and down the wharf. We prayed.
Eventually, around midway through the morning, we received some good news, though, with the boat having been spotted some distance east of the harbour and making her way under her own steam, although travelling very slowly. The searchers were still unable to make contact by radio however, so it would be a little while yet before we would know if everyone was all right or find out what had happened.
The relief at hearing this was unlike anything I had ever felt before in my entire life, but I still knew that until I could actually talk to Ben and know that he and the others were all okay then I wouldn’t be totally satisfied.
As the day dragged on and morning turned to afternoon some more news finally started to filter through. It was taking forever for Cye and our boys to cover those last miles but one of the other boats had managed to come up alongside the ‘Wanderer’ and the crew had been able to talk to our boys, yelling questions and answers across the waves to each other, before then relaying those messages to the other searchers.
They managed to find out that there had apparently been an accident of some sort, although the details we were given were sketchy at best. The one thing that was certain though was that one of the crew members was injured, but they couldn’t - or wouldn’t - say who it was, so once more the rest of us were plunged into a fearful waiting game, made even worse a short time later when an ambulance arrived at the wharves, standing by for their arrival.
‘I hope that whatever it is it isn’t too serious,’ I remember Tim saying.
‘I’m sure they’ll all be fine,’ Scott said, trying to reassure us all, though I was certain that he was just as concerned as the rest of us were and I suspect that he was trying to reassure himself just as much as any of us.
By about this time word had spread that the ‘Wanderer’ had been found and was on its way back into the harbour, so a sizeable crowd had started to gather. Quite a large number of people were lining the two break walls and scanning the horizon for the first sign of the boat and her crew, the public’s morbid fascination about accidents and injuries no doubt being the catalyst for their actions.
When eventually they were spotted, a mere speck on the distant horizon, with dark smoke spewing out behind them in a great cloud, a cheer quickly went up, sending us all running for the end of the break wall to get as good a look as we could.
It would be a couple of hours more before we would see the boat come past us where we stood on the break wall, however, almost close enough for us to touch her, and we would find out who it was who was injured. We could see Cye in the wheelhouse, looking even more haggard than we had ever seen him before, while Ben, Justin and Matt were nowhere to be seen. We could also see that there was some damage to the boat, a smashed window, a boom half hanging down, almost dipping into the water, aerials broken, so it was obvious that something had happened; we just couldn’t be sure what though.
We were all looking at each other, lost and dazed and confused, not quite knowing what to think, when Matt emerged from below decks and gave us a wave. There were no smiles or shouts. And there was still no sign of Justin or Ben.
‘Are you all right?’ Luke called out to him, struggling to be heard over the noise of the engine, which didn’t sound healthy at all.
‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ he answered.
‘What about the others? Where are they?’ Tim asked.
‘Below decks,’ Matt called back. ‘Ben has been hurt.’
My heart was in my mouth. I grabbed hold of Scott’s arm and held on for dear life.
‘I’m sure he’ll be all right,’ Scott said to me, putting his arm around me and giving me a hug.
‘I’d like to believe you,’ I said to him.
Cye brought the boat into the safe harbour behind the break wall and manoeuvred her into position alongside the wharf. Matt ran forward and threw a line to a man on the wharf, who secured it around a post, then went to the back of the boat and threw another line to someone else who then did the same.
I made a move to go on-board to go and see Ben, but Scott held me back.
‘Just let them do their job,’ he said to me, nodding toward the ambulance officers who were boarding the boat just as soon as she had berthed. We watched as Matt led them below decks to where Justin and Ben were, while another officer went straight to Cye, who seemed to have collapsed onto a seat in the wheelhouse, looking more than just exhausted. He looked shattered.
A few minutes later Matt emerged from below the decks, jumped over the boat’s railing and landed on the wharf, then came over to where we were all standing. He gave Luke a hug and a kiss, with gasps quickly coming from the gathered crowd. Then he hugged me.
‘How’s Ben?’ I asked him. ‘What happened out there? And what’s happening now?’
‘We were hit by a freak wave. Ben got knocked out when he fell and hasn’t woken up yet,’ he answered.
I gasped, fearing what injuries he might have.
‘The ambulance guys are checking him over and will bring him out soon. Justin’s okay,’ he said to Scott, ‘he’s just staying with Ben for a bit.’
Scott nodded to him.
‘We were out near Kings Island when the motor gave out. The weather was really shitty and the sea was bloody rough. While me and Cye were in the engine room working on the motor, with the hatch open above us, Justin and Ben were looking down and watching us and passing tools down or whatever,’ Matt said.
‘That’s when we got hit broadside by this huge freak wave and it knocked both of them from their feet. Justin managed to grab the nets that were hanging right beside them and hang on, but Ben fell forward into the engine bay where we were and hit his head on part of the engine. He’s been out to it ever since, though thankfully he’s been breathing okay.
‘We couldn’t leave him in there, we had to take the risk and move him, so we made a bit of a stretcher out of a bunk and got him through the door into the galley. Justin’s been with him ever since and keeping a close eye on him. When we got hit by the wave it also somehow broke the boom and it swung around and smashed the windows and radio aerials too, so we had no way of communicating. None of us have ever thought to take a phone out with us.’
‘Well, at least you got the motor going again,’ Tim said.
‘Yeah, eventually. But it was touch and go there for a while. We were drifting toward rocks on the island and thought we might end up smashed to pieces on those.’
‘What about old Cye? He looks buggered,’ Scott asked. We all looked across at where he was sitting, with the ambulance officer still talking to him.
‘He’s just shattered. I haven’t ever seen him like this. He thinks the motor is pretty much stuffed now. Reckons he might not even bother getting it fixed, doesn’t think he can afford it, not that he’s really worried about that at the moment. I don’t know what will happen now.’
It was just then that a police officer came over and asked to speak to Matt, so he went off with him, then a few minutes later there was some activity on the boat as they started to bring Ben out, secured to a stretcher and being handled with kid gloves.
Pulling away from Scott I rushed over to see him, with the guys all coming in my wake. As we waited at the edge of the wharf they brought him ashore, still unconscious. Pretty much all I could see was an unruly mop of brown hair sticking out the top of everything, an oxygen mask covering his face, his neck in a brace, his body completely covered with one of those silver metallic emergency blankets, making him look like a spaceman. I had never seen anyone in such a state and it really gave me a fright.
Turning around, unable to cope with seeing Ben like this, I looked away, burying my head into the chest of the person closest to me, who happened to be Luke. He hugged me close, while I sobbed.
‘Sshhhh,’ he was saying. ‘He’s going to be all right.’
‘How can you possibly say that?’ I sobbed.
I wasn’t angry with him for saying it. It was just… it was just that I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen. He just hugged me tighter.
As they carried Ben to the waiting ambulance I pulled away from Luke and followed them, then as they were loading him in I asked, ‘Can I travel with him, please?’
The ambulance officer who appeared to be in charge looked me up and down and asked, ‘Are you his wife?’
‘We… we live together,’ I answered.
After a moment’s hesitation he nodded and helped me up into the back of the ambulance.
By this time Justin had come over and joined us, with he and Scott embracing and giving each other a kiss, much to the amazement of the gathered crowd. If there was anyone in the town who didn’t know about Scott and Justin, or about any of our guys for that matter, it was bound to be public knowledge by nightfall. I just hoped that they were ready for how the community might react to that news, though just at the moment I had other things to worry about.
‘We’ll follow you into town,’ Tim said to me just before the ambulance doors closed. All I could do was offer a sad smile and mouth the words ‘thank you’ to him before the engine was started and a deafening siren was switched on, drowning out all other sounds.
As the ambulance moved off into the gloom I could see our friends standing in a group watching us, their faces lighting up red with each flash of the lights, and growing smaller and smaller the further we drove away.
* * *
So, as I’ve already mentioned, when I first arrived at the Macquarie Harbour Hospital it was a very scary place.
When we pulled up outside the emergency department people came running out to meet the ambulance and Ben was whisked away to be poked and prodded and scanned and x-rayed and to do whatever else they needed to do. I was told I would have to ‘wait outside’ while he was examined, and just like that I was shut out. All of a sudden I was alone. And I was frightened.
Thankfully it was only a few minutes later when Tim and Guy showed up, with Matt and Luke in tow, then Scott and Justin came through the doors shortly after that. Matt and Justin were still dressed in their grubby work clothes, stinking of fish and oil and quite clearly causing offence to some of the nurses and others in the waiting rooms, not that any of us cared about that.
‘Have they told you anything yet?’ Scott asked as soon as he came to me. I could only shake my head, tears very close to the surface and in danger of being let loose any second now. I was trying to be strong, trying to tough it out, but I wasn’t sure how long I could keep that up for.
‘I’ll go and see if I can find out anything,’ Scott said, then went off in search of answers while the rest of us waited. And waited. And waited.
While Scott was away the rest of us sat around in silence in the drab waiting room, looking at each other, looking at the community health posters stuck to the walls, some of which were faded and with their corners starting to turn upwards, or downwards, as the case may be. There were a few other people in the waiting room, a woman with a teenage son who had an injured arm, and another elderly couple, but just like us, they were pretty much keeping to themselves. We could hear people hurrying along passageways, wheeling trolleys, talking in hushed tones, going about their work. And all the while we continued to wait.
It was Tim who was first to eventually break the silence.
‘Holy shit!’ he said quietly, but with some force. ‘Has anyone thought to ring his parents?’
I looked up at him to find him looking directly at me, before then turning to Guy. Blank expressions were everywhere.
‘I guess I’d better do it,’ he said after a moment’s thought. ‘It’ll be best coming from me I think.’
He got up and pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and as he headed outside he started punching the numbers. He passed through the sliding glass doors and they closed behind him. We couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I could easily imagine the reaction from the other end. If it was anything like my own it would be quite upsetting for them.
Eventually he disconnected and made his way back inside, looking rather grim.
‘Spoke to his dad,’ he told us. ‘He was upset, but took it pretty well really. He thanked me for calling them. Ben’s mum is out somewhere. He’s going to go and pick her up right now and they’ll come straight down. It’s quite a few hours’ drive, so they won’t get here until later tonight.’
‘Thank you,’ I said to Tim as he sat back down beside me, giving his hand a squeeze.
‘You’re welcome,’ he replied. ‘Ben and I go back a long way, so he means almost as much to me as he does to you.’
‘I know,’ I responded, hugging him.
Just then we heard footsteps coming down the corridor and looked up to see Scott arriving back, complete with a doctor in tow, with both wearing rather grave expressions.
‘Scott has advised me of the situation here and Ben’s relationship with you,’ he said to me, ‘so even though you aren’t technically his next-of-kin I think it will be all right for me to tell you what his status is.’
‘Thank you,’ I said to him.
‘Has anyone contacted his parents yet?’
‘Yes, I have,’ Tim answered. ‘They’re on their way.’
‘Ahhh, that’s good then. It appears that there is quite a bit of swelling to the brain, as a result of his hitting his head,’ the doctor said, getting straight to the point, ‘so it won’t really be possible to get a good idea of what is happening, and if there is any lasting damage, until that subsides.’
I nodded, but wasn’t too sure if I fully understood.
‘The good news is that there are no fractures to the skull or the neck, he’s breathing on his own and there don’t appear to be any other lasting injuries apart from the bump to the head. I can’t say for certain that there won’t be some sort of damage, but all being well he should recover fully, given enough time.’
‘Damage?’ I asked. ‘You mean, as in brain damage?’
‘And how much time are we talking about?’ Tim asked.
‘That’s hard to say,’ he answered. ‘It could be days, or even weeks before the swelling goes down, and it won’t be until after that until we can assess him further.’
‘He will wake up though?’ I asked.
‘There are no guarantees as to what will happen, but yes, based on similar injuries I’ve seen before, I do believe he will wake up and that he’ll make a full recovery.’
It wasn’t exactly an ironclad guarantee, but at least there was hope. I guess that was all I could cling to.
‘How long will it be until his parents arrive?’ he then asked.
‘Later tonight,’ Tim answered. ‘It’s about a five or six hour drive from where they live.’
‘I see. Well, if I’m not still here the staff can call me when they arrive if they need to. I’ll let them know. And if you have any other questions don’t hesitate to ask, all right?’
‘Thank you, doctor,’ I answered. ‘Can we see him?’
‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘But, just don’t expect too much, okay?’
The group of us all followed him down the corridor and through some glass doors with EMERGENCY DEPARTMENT written in bold red letters across them.
We passed a reception counter and nurses station then found there were a number of cubicles along one wall, each with a curtain across the front of it. Some of these were open, while a few of the cubicles had their curtain drawn shut. We stopped at one of these drawn curtains and the doctor pulled it back to reveal a near naked Ben lying there, a sheet draped over his waist and legs being all that covered him.
Ben had tubes going into him in places, with a drip feeding into his arm, an oxygen mask on his face, monitors attached to him and machines going ‘beep… beep… beep…’
Beside his bed were several trolleys and on one wall, just above his head and to one side, was a light box with several x-rays on display. Head x-rays.
My initial reaction was one of deep shock, seeing him there looking so helpless while hooked up to so many machines. But he also looked so peaceful lying there, his hair sticking out this way and that, his breathing steady, his chest rising and falling evenly with each breath he took.
I stepped forward and stood by his bed, while the others stayed back near the curtain. Taking one of his hands in mine I brought it up to my cheek and just held it there. I wanted to cry. Hell, I wanted to cry out. I wanted to tell him I loved him. That I wanted him to come back to me… to us all, really… I wanted him to know that we were all here for him.
The doctor left us there with Ben, with the nurses periodically coming and going, taking readings and writing stuff on his chart and generally keeping an eye on things. After about half an hour the doctor came back and stood beside the drawn back curtain.
‘They have a bed ready for Ben in the Intensive Care ward now, so we’re going to move him to that ward in a few minutes. We will keep a very close eye on Ben there, for the next couple of days at least, then after that we will assess his condition again and see what the best options for his care might be,’ the doctor said to us.
‘All right,’ I said to him.
‘He’ll be in the best of care,’ Scott said to me. He was standing directly behind me, one hand on each shoulder, listening to what the doctor was saying.
‘Yes. I know,’ I replied. ‘Thank you. Thank you to everyone.’
* * *
It was two weeks before there was any sign of improvement in Ben. Two weeks during which he had been lying there like a vegetable, without the slightest sign of anything happening.
The machines kept up their infernal beeping sound. The disgusting disinfectant smell of the hospital that had made me so nauseous to start with soon became normal. Everything that had scared me to start with now wasn’t quite so scary any more.
But they were also the hardest two weeks of my life as I watched him every day, motionless, helpless, and there wasn’t a damned thing that I, or anybody else, could do. On some days I was barely able to function and as a result I took time off from both my work and my studies.
The doctors kept telling us all that what was happening with Ben was normal. They also told us that they could see the swelling going down and that we would know soon enough what the future would hold.
I kept asking them when. They kept telling me soon. And still we waited.
On the plus side at least I got to know Ben’s parents, Tom and Elaine, much better, and for the first time in a long time I was starting to feel like I was a part of a family again. Don’t get me wrong, I mean Tim and Guy and Matt and Luke, who Ben and I shared the house with, were as much family to me as anyone, but what I’m talking about is a real family, with a mum and a dad and brothers and sisters. It was something that I had really missed since my own parents had spilt up and as I got to know them all just that little bit better I finally started feeling like this was a family to which I could belong.
That in itself, however, soon triggered more anxiety, when the doctors told us that when Ben did wake up there would be every chance that he would have no memory of any of us. What if he didn’t know who I was? What if he didn’t know who his family was? What if he never remembered us? What then?
I didn’t know if I would be able to cope with that. I feared that losing him, then getting him back, only to lose him all over again would be just too much to deal with.
I spent hours talking to Tom and Elaine, hearing all their stories about Ben’s childhood, and hearing a few about Tim as well. The two of them were inseparable as kids. And things weren’t really that much different now.
Then came the day, finally, that we had all been waiting for. The day that Ben finally opened his eyes and came back to us, or if not to us, at least back to the land of the living.
I had been taking the morning shift, while Ben’s parents were taking the afternoon shift. We were taking turns at sitting with him in hopes that something, anything, might happen, while still giving us all some time to do all the other things that needed to be done in life. It had only taken us a few days to drop into this new routine, and I have to say that I was grateful that they were here, not only for the fact that somehow their being here helped to share the burden of dealing with this all alone, but also for the fact I was getting to know them better. At least now I was no longer considered the older woman who had stolen their son away from them.
One night I had ended up falling asleep on a chair in Ben’s room. I dreamt of those things that were now constants in my life; the hospital machines, faces covered with surgical masks and the pungent smell of disinfectant.
When morning came I awoke with a start, just as the doctors and nurses were about to wheel Ben away into some dark room, away from me, away from his family and friends, and never to be seen again. Of that I was sure.
With sunlight streaming into the room and with a blanket draped across me (it must have come from one of the nurses I think) I yawned and stretched and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. Looking across toward Ben’s bed I found him looking straight at me, propped up on pillows, and with a slightly confused expression etched upon his face.
‘Hey. You’re finally awake!’ I said to him, jumping to my feet and going to his bedside.
‘Hey,’ he managed to croak back at me, but by the sound of it he could barely manage that.
Leaning over him I kissed him on the lips, then picked up a cord that was hanging from the frame of the bed and pressed the red button on the end of it. Somewhere off in the distance I heard a buzzer going off.
‘They said you would come around soon, once the swelling inside your head went down. That’s what they were waiting for.’
‘They?’ he croaked again. I picked up his hand and held it.
‘The doctors, of course.’
Moments later in rushed a nurse, apparently in response to the buzzer that had been pressed.
‘He’s awake!’ she exclaimed.
I thought for a second about asking her if she graduated at the top of her class. By the look on Ben’s face I think he was thinking the exact same thing. He did manage something of a grunt, receiving a rather patronising smile as the nurse poked and prodded and wrote stuff down on a chart, before proceeding to fluff his pillows, waving her ample bosom in his face as she did so.
While this was happening I continually held Ben’s hand. I didn’t want to let him go.
‘What happened?’ Ben asked, after the nurse had left.
‘You’ve been in an accident.’
‘Two weeks ago.’
Next came the killer questions. The ones the doctors warned us to be ready for. The ones I was dreading he would ask.
‘Who are you? And who am I?’
Hearing that for the first time was painful, hitting me full on, like a punch in the stomach. I had thought that I had prepared myself for that to happen, but I guess until it does happen to you, you can’t really know what to expect.
Then, as if he sensed my disappointment he said, ‘I’m sorry. I hope I haven’t hurt your feelings. I’d really hate to upset someone as pretty as you!’
‘Well, at least it doesn’t look like you’ve changed much,’ I said to him, smiling. ‘The old Ben was just as big a flirt as you obviously are. Maybe you haven’t lost all of your memory after all?’
To that he just smiled. And it was a smile that lit up the room.
‘So, my name is Ben?’
‘Yes. And my name is Samantha,’ I replied.
‘Walker. Ben Walker. And we’ve been together for a couple of years now.’
Just then the doctor came in, followed closely by the nurse who had responded to the buzzer a few minutes earlier.
‘I see you two have met, then!’ the doctor remarked.
I gave Ben’s hand a little squeeze. He didn’t squeeze back though. The old Ben would have squeezed my hand back. Instead he simply looked up at me, as if studying me, before finally giving me the faintest of smiles.
‘Perhaps we should give Ben’s parents a call? I’m sure they’ll be keen to hear the good news,’ the doctor said.
‘I have parents too?’ Ben quickly blurted out.
‘Yes, Ben, most of us do,’ I offered. ‘And they’ve also been here every day waiting for you to wake up.’
The doctor gave a nod to the nurse and she hurried off, presumably to make the call that would bring Tom and Elaine running.
‘So, what now?’ I asked the doctor. ‘Where do we go from here?’
Ben was still holding my hand. It was almost as if he was afraid of letting go, or afraid of me letting go of him. He needn’t have worried though, as there was no way I was letting go of him. Not now. Not ever.