As MacCaig enters the hospital, he feels repulsed by his surroundings and seems to be detached from himself. “The hospital smell combs my nostril”. This unusual metaphor suggests that the antiseptic, potent smell of the disinfected hospital is so strong that it even reaches beyond the roots of the hairs in his nostrils; it shows his discomfort. It hits the narrator straight away more than anything else. He then goes on to say: “As they go bobbing along”.
This implies that the nostrils are disembodied from him and they are floating along on their own. It suggests he is detached from the experience and shows he is struggling to cope with the situation. This idea is reinforced in stanza three: “I will not feel, I will not feel, until I have to”. The narrator is trying to reassure himself that he is strong enough to deal with the disturbing visit and the repetition creates a worried and tense atmosphere. “Until I have to” tells the reader that death is inevitable. The staccato rhythm caused by the single syllable words and enjambment in this verse heightens the tension felt by the narrator. This emphasises his finality as well as his confused state of mind.
“Green and yellow corridors”. The description of the colours of the wall has connotations of disease, infections and vomit. This shows us once again that he is finding the visit discomforting and uneasy. As the narrator watches the nurses in the hospital, he can’t help but think highly of them and considers them to possess an angelic quality: “Nurses walk lightly, swiftly, here and up and down and there.” This lexical choice deliberately emphasises the way he thinks that they are remarkable as they are so efficient and seem to be everywhere at once due to their tremendous business. Linking the words with ‘and’ makes these lines have a sort of rhythm; this reinforces the idea of the hospital being so busy. Furthermore, he notices their lean physiques:
“Their slender waists miraculously carrying their burden”. He feels that the nurses are so tiny and graceful but they play a massive part in the running of the entire hospital; they may be small but they are the ones who visitors lean on in times of anguish. No outsider could tell just by looking at them what they have gone through. “Their eyes still clear after so many farewells”. He is getting closer to his destination, so he talks of pain and farewells which he is anticipating to be the outcome of his visit. He acknowledges that the nurses have experienced a lot in their line of work and respects that they can still remain so composed and brave after all the deaths they have seen whereas he feels he can’t bear the sorrow of losing just one relative. Upon his arrival, he states:
“Ward 7.” The use of the abrupt statement followed by a full stop shows how he stops completely in his tracks. He is finally ready to confront his feelings. The digit seven is more effective than the word because it allows the user to see through MacCaig’s eyes. He has feared this moment for quite some time and is preparing himself for what lies ahead. As the narrator enters ward 7, he witnesses a frail, exhausted figure whose: “A withered hand trembles on its stalk”.
In the metaphor, the woman’s hand is compared to a withered flower; it highlights how fragile she really is. The word choice is excellent because like the withered flower, this woman is dying and her arms as so thin, they are almost stalk-like. The flower imagery also suggests the woman’s former beauty which the narrator can still see. The reader feels a great deal of sympathy at this point, both for the woman and the narrator who has to endure her physical weakness without being able to do anything to help. “And between her and me distance shrinks till there is none left but the distance of pain that neither she nor I can cross.”