It was when I woke up on Tuesday that I knew something was strange,
like I'd slept badly on one side. My arm and leg felt numb, like waiting for
the pins and needles to come. So I lay there, and I waited, but the pins and
needles never came. The sensible thing would have been to call an ambulance,
but I really didn't think of it like an emergency, I suppose because I wasn't
in any pain. I called Katie on that new cordless telephone they bought me
for Christmas, all buttons and lights. Came in handy by the bed, that did.
I told her I couldn't sit up and that I couldn't use my arm. I had to tell
her a few times because I'd got a bit of a slur in my speech, like my dad
used to get when he sat in front of the fire at night with half a bottle of
whisky. She said she was coming straight away and that I should just sit tight,
I said I'd already said I wasn't going anywhere. I told her about the key
under the petunias by the front door, she said, "Yes, yes I know Mum," the
way she always does, especially when those boys of hers are running round
She got there ever so quick. I know because I'd taken to watching the
seconds tick by on the clock by the bed. Looked so worried, poor thing, all
the color gone from her face and I could hear the tears hiding in her voice
when she called the ambulance. I can't think what I'll be like when they take
me home from here. It's not natural for a child to care for her mother like
the mother once cared for her. Don't know what that husband of hers will make
of it all, me needing help up and down the stairs like their little one. I've
always wondered if it would have been easier for her if we'd been able to
have another child.
Just a small stroke, the doctor said. Be out of here in no time. With
a little bit of practice I'll be talking and using my arm nearly as well as
before. Katie brought a cane in with her on her visit today. Apparently one
of those therapy people is coming tomorrow to teach me to walk with a frame.
Not sure what they can say other than to put one foot in front of the other.
Now the ward's filling with children, parents holding hands, gas masks,
and teddy bears. They move to let one of the nurses through; she smiles at
me as she passes. Little Timmy Robson and my brother Jack are standing at
the end of my bed with their brown paper packages and gas masks slung over
their shoulders. Always smiling, Jack was. Such a great adventure to go and
live in the country. "They've got cows an' fields there," he'd said to me
every day the week before we left. Youngest of five I was, lucky Jack wasn't
older than he was or I would've been evacuated on my own. Sister Lilly was
working in an office, May cleaning in a posh school and Danny at the abattoir.
Though Danny was called up, of course. My dad, just older than they wanted,
did everything he could for the Home Guard. All of a sudden they're gone.
The smoke and noise of the platform replaced with the squeaking of crepe soles
as the nurse walks from bed to bed, folding hospital corners into the sheets
and plumping pillows. A bell rings and ten girls and boys push their chairs
from their desks almost in unison. They run to the end of the ward and spill
out of the double doors into the garden. It's a beautiful day out there and
the fields look like they go on forever. The girls are skipping. The boys
are shooting big glass marbles between the chairs on the patio, running round
the patients sitting in their dressing gowns outside. I stay in the classroom.
Miss Ashcroft is pushing chairs in under desks and piling up books on one
arm. She smiles at me and picks a book up from my table. I've drawn a picture
of me, Timmy, and Jack in the garden of the house we were living in, seemingly
acres of foxgloves reaching to the sky. I can nearly smell them as I turn
to see Katie arranging flowers by my bed. "Just resting my eyes, dear," I
Jack's crying, sat on the end of my bed, a scrap of white paper and
a brown envelope in his hand, a telegram from my mother. Danny had been shot
down over France. Jack hangs his head and walks out of the ward as a doctor
walks in. He checks the chart at the end of my bed, without even looking up
to see me. I watch his face for good or bad omens.
The doctor gone, my typewriter's in front of me, like all the other
girls, rows of us sat in the room. The William Tell Overture playing over and over as it does every day, us typing in time to the
music, faster as they speed up the tune. I came in straight from school at
fourteen, like most of my friends. Patty and Ruth sat either side, Enid in
front. We gossiped whenever the boss walked in between the rows in front of
us. Some nights, especially when we were a couple of years older, we went
to local dances in the evenings. Ruth leans over and whispers, "Boss's coming,"
and I look to my typewriter, but nothing's there but yesterday's half-filled
Katie's with me again. It must be the weekend, as her husband and the
grandchildren are with her, the little one fidgeting with bright plastic toys
at the end of my bed. Andrew, her eldest, has a look of my George about him.
Faint background music gets louder, something by Frank Sinatra. The ward's
full of couples dancing or sitting in corners holding hands and groups of
girls lining the edges, whispering, waiting for a dance. Enid jumps up and
runs to speak to her older brother, a huge smile on her face as she points
across the room to me. He walks over confidently, asks me to dance with his
hand outstretched. We dance quite close, he whispers to me about a picnic,
and I close my eyes as he swings me around. The song ends and he takes my
arm as he leads me back to bed.
There's a walking frame next to me. The nurses want me to walk to the
day room and sit in there for the day. I pull on my dressing gown and wear
my new slippers. A nurse walks behind me as I slowly shuffle the few yards
to the doors of the sitting room. I stumble slightly, Jack grins at me as
he takes my arm, the walking frame gone as he leads me through. Family and
friends sit in rows either side of the day room, along with those patients
sitting with magazines and cups of tea. Near the front, Patty and Enid dressed
identically in peach satin, next to my sister Lilly and her boys. George looks
nervous, stood next to the Pastor, handsome in his suit. I take his hand and
smile when I reach the end of the room. I can hear my mother sniffling as
George puts a ring on my finger. She always loved weddings. The sounds of
the church are drowned out by the blare of the television, the deafer patients
cluster close to it. I have a cup of tea in front of me, still easier to drink
with a straw. The evening draws in and the nurses see patients back to their
beds. I fall asleep easily after such a busy day.
A baby's cry rings out, I wake with a start. It's morning and a nurse
helps me to sit. The ward is bright white in the morning sun, the sheets on
each bed crisp and clean, a crib by every bed. Some mothers are sat up like
me, a baby clutched to their breast. I feel so tired, but George is there
to hold my hand. A nurse carries a bundle of white blankets to my bed, and
lays Katie in my arms. George looks quite tearful as Katie grabs his finger,
his wedding ring she keeps even now in a drawer somewhere.
A nurse draws the curtains around my bed, and I see that Katie is by
my side, holding my hand. My doctor stands on the other side of me, talking
to them as he holds my chart in his hands. Katie just stares at me, almost
without blinking. George pokes his head through the curtains and smiles at
me as he walks in. The doctor passes him as he leaves and George takes my
hand. He looks to Katie with a little sadness in his eyes as he helps me out
of bed. I leave without slippers or a dressing gown, but the ward floor doesn't
feel cold as we walk hand in hand to the double doors that lead to the garden.
George swings them open and we walk into the warmth of the day. It's so pretty;
I wish I had sat out here before. Up the hill there's a tree, a group of figures
clad in black beneath its shadow. As we get closer I see their pale faces
where the bright sun touches them, Katie, Andrew, Jack. We stop at the end
of the bright green lined grave as Katie kneels beside it, throwing a handful
of dirt. I watch the grains fall onto polished wood and burnished plaque below,
expecting to see George's name engraved there. George smiles and the sun gets
brighter. And I read my name.
Mulcahy-Hawes K. Watching the World Go By. JAMA. 2003;289(5):613-614. doi:10.1001/jama.289.5.613