Joanna Pickering: Paradox of Color 

Mark Rothko, No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red), 1951. Source:

It had been a bad morning from the onset. It started with a flood from the bathroom which cracked the lower wall and damaged her one and only painting of any expense. She didn’t have insurance. It was a real shame. 

The painting was The Paradox of Color. It was an original. It was the first original piece of art she’d bought. The gallery shipped it to her and it arrived with a crate of champagne. They knew they’d gone to town with the sale’s close. The adrenalin rush isn’t something she’d forget. 

But now, the water had run through the glass and down the center of the painting. 

It would have to wait. She was an hour late for work. By the time they had lost the toe, before it was even lunch, it was already a head fuck of a day. 

Her name was Patricia Mohammed and she was a doctor at the Queen Elizabeth hospital on Greenwich road. It was ranked the worst hospital in London. 

Patricia had only recently graduated. She had about 60 thousand pounds worth of student debt, and was pretty much on course to be blacklisted by the time she got her bachelor in science degree. It was presented to her by dame Judi Dench, whoever that was, and she’d taken the money for a dress from her father. He didn’t believe girls should go to higher education, let alone for science, but by time she was ready to earn a doctor’s wage, he had a sudden change of heart and bought the dress to prove it. 

She’d taken the first job she got and bought The Paradox of Color nine months later. 

Patricia worked in the pathology lab. She would freeze the limbs, collect the biopsies and organs, and set deformed body tissues in glass jars filled with formaldehyde (her favorite preserving agent) as they brought down the new trollies of dead bodies. 

When the gangrene toes arrived to the lab from the patient, Robert Smith, on ward 3, there were only eight. According to the lab records, Robert Smith had one big toe left on his right foot. So, there should have been nine. 

For the needed pathology report the missing toe was now her problem. There is a lot of red tape. You can’t just lose someone’s toe in a hospital. Attached or not, questions would be asked and answers needed. 

Her job could even be on the line. 

Hospitals with worst rankings existed in a blame culture. Nothing was ever fixed, or ever would be, so instead people were blamed and fingers, if not lost, were pointed. 

There was also the sexual harassment grievance at HR that was going duly ignored. This would weaken her side. Incompetence or negligence…

It was clear to her, the mistake was an administrative cock up and Smith had two toes left, OR the missing toe once amputated had been been dropped and/or disposed in the normal trash, which would breach all safety and hygiene regulation in a major contamination and infection risk, but bear in mind the Queen Liz was ranked worst hospital for good reason. 

She decided the best course of action would be to start by seeing Smith herself and do a toe count—subtlety. But, Patricia hated speaking to people which was why she didn’t work on wards and had opted for pathology. 

She’d had a choice of brain surgery and almost gone into veterinary surgery to avoid people, preferring animals, before swiftly deciding organs would be better without any living body at all. 

She could cope with disposable organs, a fetus and cysts and lumps, but humans were entirely another matter. 

She found them clumsy and lacking in any real elegance. Now you’d be right to wonder how a cyst removed from say the vaginal cavity of a woman may have any elegance, but, you probably haven’t studied it’s austere beauty under a microscope, measured it’s diameter, inspected it’s soft fleshy outside and hard stone center, zoomed in on an objective lens of X100 magnification and seen the cell patterns in endless fractals as mesmerizing as the snowflake. 

As she took the elevator to the upper floor, Patricia needed to remind herself she’d only lost one of his toes. He had lost eight. Or nine. Depending on what she found. He probably felt worse. 

Would he walk again? She’d be asked that and she wasn’t in a position, legal or otherwise, to answer. Although she knew prosthetics were improving at a fast rate. 

It amused her patients were called patients. All they wanted to know was the end result. They had no patience whatsoever for the healing time that was the wonder of the body at work. No respect that open wounds will intrinsically heal by their own coagulant adhesive, that bones mould themselves back together, that saliva contains antiseptic, that the whole body repairs by magic of gods and when paired alongside the marvels of scientific intervention. 

Her tolerance of humanity was coming to an all time low.  Luckily, for her, so far, the only patients she saw were the dead ones— a sheet over them, of course, but often a hand of leg would fall out. It would be a great shame to lose this job, she thought. Especially, now the boss who kept placing his hand on her backside had moved departments.

Smith was recovering in ward 7, which wasn’t for recovery of amputees or for infectious disease. He was on the gastro cancer ward. A man there had thankfully just died freeing up his bed. Since they’d overbooked his, they’d sent him here. This fortunate news meant he’d only lose his toes and not his feet. His records would follow in due time, likely never. 

He was dozing when she arrived but soon woke. 

She recalled from her Ethics in Medicine course at university (that not only covered determination of the value of human live and in regards equality, i.e. how to fairly assign in which order to save human life, but also patient social well being and mores) to open with a civil question. 

She opted out of how are you feeling. After losing most of your toes it seemed obvious to her the answer would be fucking terrible. She asked him how it happened. 

He’d dropped a large heavy framed painting on his feet while trying to hang it. It had fallen about 6 feet and guillotined onto his feet breaking all the bones and bursting the toes open. He’d been waiting for an operation to reset them for about three months but as he wasn’t dying (yet) he kept losing his operation slot (the bed shortages). 

When he phoned and said they were going green they didn’t hurry up. By the time, he took the initiative and had someone carry him onto the number 78 bus to the emergency room, the toes were black. 

Gangrenous by constructed circulation and bacterial infection. 

They couldn’t be saved—except by miracles only his big toes—which being bigger in surface area had taken longer for the bacteria to spread. 

Did he say both big toes? Yes that’s right. She checked under the cloth. Sure enough he had two big toes, inflamed and infected, without any nails or closed skin, but not yet black. 

Her job was secure. She told him the stumps of the other toes were bandaged and clean. 

Will I be able to walk? He asked. 

She could answer honestly and was glad. With two big toes the chances are much higher you’ll walk again, not the same but again, she said. 

Doesn’t matter what you doctors say, he said, I don’t listen. I’d walk even if you said I wouldn’t. 

He looked up at her with a half smile. 

She understood she was expected to interact.

This was annoying. She had what she needed and wanted to leave. She wanted to be cutting up his severed toes— all 8 of them—scraping the blackened cells onto the glass slide, adding the little droplet of iodine on the diseased membranes, before carefully lowering the cover slip without one air bubble (she was good) to study them silently, on her own, under the microscope. 

Yet, to be honest, she liked this man more than most, from his last comment alone. Humor. That is what she would use:

I’m sure the painting came off far worse. 

A lame joke. But, nevertheless, the best she could do at this grotesque thing called chit chat. 

It bloody better not. He chuckled back. A good humored man she thought for someone newly missing 8 toes. 

It’s an expensive one, he continued. It’s The Paradox of Color. An original. 

Now, she had a new problem. 

Joanna Pickering is an award-winning playwright, memoirist, and actress. She can be found on Twitter @joannapickering