Brian carefully lifted himself a little higher on the bed as the nurse adjusted the pillows behind
him, then he lay back and smiled his thanks as she moved to the next patient. He was feeling
better than he had this morning – a little less watery, a little more solid perhaps. He always felt
strange after surgery, as if he had run a marathon and had no strength left in his muscles.
It was the third time he had landed in hospital in acute pain and the third time they had operated
on his gut trying to remove the section that not only refused to do its job but seemed to be
actively attacking him. He looked at the tubes that still connected him to the various machines
hanging above his head and thought how much simpler it would be if they could replace his
whole system with nice clear plastic.
He sighed and reached for the jug and cup that stood on the table. If all continued as planned
then he would be able to eat a small meal tomorrow and then they could determine when he
would be well enough to return home, but in the meantime all he was allowed to put in his
mouth was ice. He poured a couple of pieces into the cup and looked at them carefully. In the
last few years Brian had become used to carefully scrutinising everything he ate in order to try
and live with his disease but he never thought he would start analysing ice.
This afternoon’s jug was of the par ty bag variety, the sort you buy from a service station to fill up
your esky, hollow tubes with jagged ends, each piece just a little too large to fit comfortably in
your mouth. He had tried breaking them into smaller chunks, first with a spoon, which proved
ineffectual and then with his teeth which proved dangerous. Maybe he should just wait until they
melted slightly, certainly until they stopped smoking eerily which he knew from experience would
cause them to stick painfully to the inside of his mouth with a kind of freezer burn. He wondered
if they had run out of the ice cube sort, the small solid round edged, mouth sized pieces he had
in the previous jug. He preferred that ice in some ways but it had a lingering stale taste that
made him suspect that it was stored in the staff room fridge next to some night nurse’s frozen
dinner. It seemed to him that ice was the most common medication they used in hospital. They
used it for reducing swelling and bruising and for mildly anaesthetising small hurts, for bringing
down temperatures and even for major surgery cases like his where they needed to hydrate the
patient but couldn’t allow them to drink anything. He even recalled his ex wife hysterically
discussing “ice fingers” with her girlfriends. These consisted of surgical gloves filled with water,
frozen and dispensed, finger by finger to needy, swollen, women after childbirth. Brian thought
the application of ice a strangely medieval remedy until he remembered that refrigeration was at
least as modern as penicillin. He wondered who was in charge of ice making in the hospital,
whether there was a full time ice specialist for each ward, whether there was a chest freezer full
of different varieties or whether they used the tiny freezers in each laborator y fridge next to the
All in all the party bag ice seemed a better bet even though it tasted faintly chemical and
reminded him of a time when he had thirstily drunk the iced water at the bottom of a wine cooler
at a par ty and had ended up with a mouthful of soggy wine labels.
He was feeling very thirsty now and didn’t think he could wait until the spiky chunks melted so
he glanced around for another suitable weapon with which to attack them. Lying on the table
were the two presents from his only visitors, a fridge magnet with a widely grinning pig and the
caption “Eat more fish!” and a wooden stick that the three year old child had proudly flourished
from behind his back and which had apparently (three floors down and two long corridors away)
been attached to a red balloon. He tried not to laugh, it very much hurt to laugh, and hoped that
the child had found the balloon on the way back to the car, that way he could keep it for himself
while not having to endure a lecture on the selfishness of not handing it over to the scary man in
The stick however could be very useful. It was a sturdy piece of dowell, surprisingly clean after
being clutched in the hand of a three year old and to Brian’s relief broke the ice perfectly into
pieces with a well aimed jab.
Brian closed his eyes and sank back into his pillows with the small curve of ice sitting on his
tongue dripping water maddeningly slowly. He thought of polar explorers eating snow and ice to
survive, “I am going to eat some ice now – I may be some time”
Brian dozed until evening and woke to the clatter of the trolleys collecting the debris of dinner as
they passed through his ward. It must be a relief to the hardworking staff, he thought, to be able
to completely bypass whole rooms of people who were not able to eat. In Brian’s room only one
other bed was occupied and though the man’s name was not visible from where Brian lay he
could see the edge of the “Nil By Mouth” notice.
The unknown man was certainly very ill. Brian had an idea it was cancer but he wasn’t sure how
he knew this, maybe he had overheard the nurses while half asleep. The fact that he was in this
recovery ward and not intensive care seemed like a good sign but since he hadn’t done
anything much more than sleep since Brian had been wheeled in the previous night, it didn’t
look that good.
Eventually a nurse came round for a last check before putting out the lights. Brian was given his
medication, his bed was lowered for sleep and a fresh jug of ice was placed on the table in case
he felt thirsty.
“Is it store bought or home made?” he asked but he hadn’t the energy to explain himself when
the nurse looked at him enquiringly.
“It doesn’t matter.” he mumbled. “Goodnight.”
The nurse left him and moved to the next bed and to Brian’s surprise he heard the man speak.
“Can I have something to drink?” He murmured, but the nurse replied that he wasn’t allowed and
that he wasn’t even allowed any ice but she would ask the doctor. She finished making all her
observations and went to leave the room. Brian noticed another nurse meet her at the door,
speak to her urgently and they both hurried away, the thought of asking a doctor for ice was left
floating in the room behind her.
Next to him in the darkness the man began to moan very softly. Brian lay staring up at the
ceiling moving the cylindrical piece of ice (store bought again) around and around in his mouth
where it clicked against his teeth loudly in the quiet room. It reminded him of the noise his
grandmother used to make sucking on cough lozenges in church or biting them in half to offer
him some, ignoring his mother’s disapproval. For Brian it was the sound of praying and he was
suddenly sure the other man could hear him.
Painfully pulling himself up again to sit, Brian wheeled his table closer. Working as quietly as he
could he poured several pieces of ice into the cup and using his stick once more broke them
into bite sized pieces, then using a little of the melted water in the jug he swirled the cup around
and around until all the sharp edges were softened and the ice not quite so shockingly cold to
the mouth. After draining the water back into the jug he placed the cup on the very edge of the
table and pushed it carefully across until the casters bumped metallically against the next bed.
“Some ice.” he whispered into the sudden silence.
“Thank you.” said the man quietly as he reached for the cup. Brian lay back listening to the quiet
clicking of ice against teeth and thought again of his Grandmother praying, with her Sunday hat
and her rosary beads dusted in spilt face powder and her packets of clear rectangular cough
lozenges and then he dreamt of her breaking the hard pieces of ice for him with her teeth and
feeding them to him under the disapproving glare of a nurse.
In the morning the bed next to Brian was empty. Stripped and folded and antiseptic with Brian’s
table pushed against the wall between them. Brian vaguely recalled some movement and panic
pulling him out of his deep sleep but the rattling of the curtain as it was pulled around the bed
had led him back into a dream.
Given the choice of worrying that he had killed the man or thinking that at least he had eased his last few hours, Brian chose the later and eased himself up to reach for the jug of ice.