There is a woman in a hospital bed somewhere, in a war zone, and she’s dying.
She is beautiful, she’s conscious, and she says nothing. The doctor attending to her is an English woman in her late thirties who finds the dying woman calming and spends as much time with her as possible. Otherwise hardened by war, the doctor feels innocent when with the woman. It seems sad not to mention the moment when the doctor falls asleep at her bedside and wakes to find the woman stroking her hand and smiling at her. Who is comforting whom?
The only other character is a young French man. He’s recently left the army after three years’ service, and feels without purpose as a civilian. It was suggested that he drive a truck of medical supplies into the war zone for Médecins Sans Frontiers and he agrees. He arrives at the hospital just at the outbreak of a new battle, and finds the doctor preparing for a long night treating casualties.
The young man offers to help but he has no medical knowledge and doesn’t know the hospital. The doctor sees that, despite his willingness, he’s actually a hindrance, and asks if he would be willing to spend time sitting with the dying woman.
The night that follows provokes much thought as the young man sits holding the hand of the patient who the doctor has moved to her own quarters to make space on the ward. Outside the window he can hear mortars and machinegun fire. From the corridor, he can hear the sounds of the hospital - people shouting as the staff struggle to contain the chaos. But inside the doctor’s sparse quarters he and the dying woman are quiet and his mind wanders.
The man thinks about the doctor. He finds her attractive. He likes her. She is aware and in control; she’s a strong and practical woman. And the doctor may well have spent recent years thinking of herself this way, but her contact with the dying woman has reminded her of another side. Right now she is treating a man who’s had his right leg blown off and she’s feeling shocked and wants to cry.
The man thinks about the war outside. He’d been part of an international peace keeping effort. His personal effort had involved shooting at people. He’d often found himself under attack; it was only natural to defend himself. He could say for certain that he had killed people, but he couldn’t say for certain how many. Now though, he feels disassociated with the war. He is a civilian and an aid worker. He can hear the fighting outside, and from deep within, he wishes it would stop.
The dying woman squeezes his hand a little and smiles. He feels a great sense of comfort and then a wave of compassion. He wonders what she is dying of. He can see no bandaging or scars.
"Why are you dying?" He asks her. Pourquoi tu meurs?
I wish she could answer that it’s her role; in this story she is the dying woman - that is what she does. But she says nothing. She probably didn’t understand the question. She smiles, perhaps she squeezes his hand again, and he puts his free hand on top of hers and is moved by the contact.
The woman, as I said, is beautiful. The man however hasn’t noticed until now, when he becomes aware of a thought that is, though non specific, sexual in nature. The thought is suppressed and from outside comes the smell of dust from broken brick-work and the autumn perfume of fire. Orange light flickers across the woman’s face and highlights her hair. She rests her head back and looks at a distant place beyond the ceiling. The man distracts himself by staring at a photograph of the doctor standing between two men, one her age and the other older. The men have their arms around her waist and everyone is smiling. The photo is from another age, or another world. The doctor shines with strength and optimism; a better target for absent-minded fantasy than a dying woman.
At that moment a mortar explodes near by and the room shakes. Is the hospital being targeted? The young man moves his chair closer to the woman and something in their proximity is reassuring to both. Then the woman lifts his hand and places it on her stomach, and his fingers press down to feel the warmth of her hard belly cushioned by the thin layer of fat beneath her skin. He likes the feel of the washed cotton from her gown, and now he can smell laundry, skin and perspiration, and the smell of the doctor passed through hours ago; sweet face cream, a scented soap or deodorant, and sterile hands. Very slowly the dying woman moves his hand up across her lower ribs to her heart, where her spare hand joins and the palm of his is placed on her left breast.
The man is shocked and tenses. For a second or two his mind races. This is all wrong. He feels a sense of repulsion. But the fact is that if he had allowed his stray fantasy, it would probably have been that he touch her breast. What is he supposed to do? Grab his hand away and say “I’m sorry, no, you’ve got this all wrong.” The woman is dying. There is a connection between them and she, not he, has chosen to make this sexual. Not sex, just sexual. Is touching her breast an act of compassion that he ought to make? Is he lying to himself about her instigating this? Is he taking advantage of her incapacity, or misinterpreting a perfectly normal action? Maybe she is showing the man the source of her pain. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do.
He sees a new expression on her face now. Is it hopefulness? Is it imploring, or just sexy? He moves his hand to the lower part of her breast and gently runs his thumb across her nipple through the washed cotton gown. Her whole body rises to him and her hands hold his firmly in position. He isn’t aware that he has come to any conclusion, but realises now that he’s engaged in sexual activity. She moves his hand so that he gently massages her breast. The light flickers on her face and he has a flutter of indecision. If he is going to stop this situation he must do so now, and if not, then he should be doing a better job than he is. He moves his free left hand to her head and strokes her hair. She smiles and bites her lip and he smiles back. He feels good and relaxes. He will not kiss her and he will not have sex (he doesn’t know why, but it seems like correct behaviour). She doesn’t try to kiss him or pull his body to her, and he feels that they have an understanding. She has a hand very lightly around each of his wrists and guides one of his hands to her crotch and the other to her neck. She lifts her body and pulls up her gown leaving one hand unattended for a moment and then returns for it carefully placing his fingers between her legs.
The mortars explode and the machineguns rattle. The hospital buzzes with panicked activity and the dying woman breathes heavily as she guides the hands of the young French man to masturbate her. It’s an act of charity - surely. He can feel his heart race and adrenalin course through him. He can taste excitement as he salivates, and he can smell the intimacy of her skin. He regrets his decision to neither kiss nor have sex with the woman who has made no move to suggest she wants either. He can no longer remember the ethical debate on his behaviour, but every few moments he has flashes of discomfort that he can’t place. Maybe they‘re memories of past sexual encounters he now regrets. He reminds himself that he doesn’t regret any of his sexual encounters and ignores the nagging remorse. The woman puts more pressure on his hands and her body twists a little. Her nose no longer seems capable of shifting the volume of air that she needs and, for the first time, she opens her mouth to breath. And as she gasps the man can detect her voice in sighs still distant. He becomes aware that he is now almost on the bed with her. He moves his body closer and gently bites her neck; he tastes the salt of fresh sweat, then runs his lips down her to her breast. The sighs become louder and her breathing more intense and her back arches. He considers that she may in fact be in pain, but her hands grip his wrists like vices holding his in position. His still delicate movements become faster with hers, and the mortars fall, and gold light dances on the walls and casts shadows across them. Suddenly there is shouting and the sound of broken glass. The woman draws her breath as if she had been plunged into ice cold water, and her hands push his aside. Her body contorted away from him, she still holds one of his wrists. For far too long she fights for air. He tries to stroke her head but she pulls away from him.
Eventually the gasps subside to panting which becomes an occasional sigh. She rolls on to her back and smiles at him. He moves the cover over her body and kisses her head, then sits back and caresses her hand.
The door, to which the man has his back, opens. He sees the early-morning pale light and he’s cold. There is no fighting, the hospital is quiet, and the woman is dead. The man still holds her hand. He sits forward and turns to see the doctor. He’s dazed and unsure of what is going on.
"I must have fallen asleep," he says almost as an apology.
"When did she die?"
"I don’t know, I’m sorry." The man stands up.
"That’s all right," says the doctor walking over to the woman and closing the eyes, "I think she must have been glad to have you with her. She’s still smiling."
The man is speechless. The dead woman is smiling. The doctor pulls the sheet over her head and then turns to the man who has stood up.
"Thank you. I really am grateful that you could spend some time with her while I couldn’t. I didn’t know her, but I liked her a lot."
The man, still lost for words, puts his hand to his mouth and becomes aware of the smell of sex on his fingers. This shocks him and he quickly moves his hands behind his back. The speed of the gesture attracts the doctor’s attention.
"Excuse me doctor, I must use the bathroom." Says the man backing out of the room.