Danny visited me in the First Aid Office on-site last week. His large presence filled the shoebox room, and tears streamed down his face. Sawdust had irritated his eyes, despite him wearing a face-shield in the timber mill. I flushed them with saline, then noticed scratches on his right hand.
'Let me look at those while you're here.'
Danny pulled his hand away, but I reached across and took it in mine to inspect the cuts. The skin around the deepest was red. The others were scabbed over. From the clinic trolley I pulled out a sterile dressing pack and a large Band Aid.
'Don't go to too much trouble, Nurse.'
'No trouble, it'll be fixed in a jiffy. How'd you do it?'
Danny shrugged his shoulders and looked away.
'You were sneaking off early from the graveyard shift the other night.' I pointed through the glass sliding door at my view to the factory stairs, where I'd seen him clambering. 'Were you sick?'
He rolled his eyes and deflected the conversation. 'Been busy?'
'The usual.' I said. 'A few minor cuts to dress, some analgesia for a headache ... and you're the second eye flush today.'
Danny grunted and left abruptly.
I didn't mention the other patient, Liam, the new apprentice who slid the door open as if it weighed a tonne, and then slumped in the chair stretching and massaging his neck.
'Kinked?' I'd asked.
'Nah, whiplash. My car hit a tree.'
'A tree! Are you okay?'
'Brake line was broken. Car's out of action. I'm back on the pushbike now.'
I examined his neck and shoulders. His muscles were hard and knotted.
'Liam, are you really okay? I mean, how are you feeling in yourself?'
He's a little soft, needs toughening up. Don't worry, we've all done our time.
Liam stretched his neck and stared at the clock on the wall behind me. For a minute the ticking was the only sound between us, then he sighed.
'I didn't realise this apprenticeship would be so hard.'
I looked long and intently at the young man's hair that flopped around his face and at his lips that started to quiver. Sadly, his presentation mirrored that of the last apprentice.
'Did you find your tool belt?'
He repositioned himself awkwardly on the seat, his steel capped boots shuffling against the lino.
'S'pose my supervisor, Jack, is right when he says I'd forget my head if it wasn't screwed on.'
'Well you've got a lot on your mind. First job, new environment, it's not easy. You shouldn't be so tough on yourself. Have you got someone at home to support you?'
'Yeah, my girlfriend's there. But she's getting annoyed with me 'cause of all the after-hours phone calls.'
'What phone calls? Who?'
Liam looked at me as if I should know.
'Jack calls me back sometimes to do the cleaning.'
'That doesn't sound fair.'
'Well tell that to Jack!' Liam stood to leave. 'And have a word to Danny while you're at it.'
I squirmed in my seat. 'Wait. I haven't helped you at all,' I said, almost ashamed. 'Promise you'll come and see me tomorrow.'
Liam nodded stiffly and slid the door closed behind him.
The following day I sat in my office and waited for Liam to arrive. But each time the door slid open, there was someone older or taller, or not him. I rang his mobile and left a message before calling the factory floor. Jack assured me that Liam was at work.
'He's a little soft, needs toughening up. Don't worry, we've all done our time.' The line went dead before I could reply.
That night I had a nightmare. Liam's car slammed into a tree and his head was slumped on the steering wheel. The horn blasted a relentless warning across an otherwise sleepy little town. Blood trickled down his temples as his spirit slipped from his body and hovered above the car.
LATER in the week, someone clambered down the stairs, early on the graveyard shift again. I jumped from my chair, grabbed a torch and made my way over to meet them at the bottom. Danny startled when he saw me.
'What are you doing out here, Nurse?'
'Don't worry, I won't tell the boss about you leaving early. Is everything okay at home?'
'I'm not going home. I'm getting something from my car.'
'Oh, sorry. I didn't realise.'
I gave him a wave and started heading back to my office, but my intuition urged me to turn around and follow him. I switched off my torch and crept across the asphalt toward the unlit car park behind the factory. My step became a crunch as my steel capped boots hit the gravel. I stopped to observe.
Danny's torchlight flickered over the bicycle rack. I strained my eyes but couldn't make out what he was doing. Then a beam of light spun around the car park. I ducked behind the factory wall and watched his light bounce back up the stairs and disappear into the Mill.
I shone my torch on half a dozen bikes that were slotted into a rack. A mountain bike had old duct tape bound around the handlebars, a road bike looked sleek and new, and a helmet lay on the ground beside another bike. I picked it up, hung it on the handlebars, then noticed that the quick release lever on the rear wheel was flicked open.
I marched up the stairs and into the Mill. Jack and Danny were drinking coffee from enamel mugs and standing over Liam as he swept the floor. Their laughter faded when I eased the broom from Liam's hand and placed it between them.
As I motioned Liam to follow me, Danny flung out a few filthy words that matched his hands, and Jack's portly belly wobbled over a shiny tool belt that was obviously too small.
Maree Gallop, the author of this piece, is a finalist in this year's Newcastle Herald short story competition.