I said my goodbyes to Frank and half ran, half walked back to the hospital. Breathless, I reached the ward only to find the most stern-faced Sister imaginable barring my way.
“Visiting is over young man.”
“But it’s urgent.”
“That’s as it may be, but you will just have to wait. Thank you.”
And with that the sister turned on her very sensible heel and retreated to the sanctuary of her ward.
There is a park opposite the hospital in the middle of which sits a duck pond. Even though this is one of the toughest parts of a tough city, the ducks generally get left alone. Sitting on a bench thinking about Frank, Joyce and her horrible offspring, I watched as a Mallard approached and began nosing at one of Joyce’s grapes. Then a grey squirrel appeared and made off with more of the fruit that had fallen from the hole in my brown paper bag.
The grey squirrel, an American import, had all but wiped out the indigenous English red squirrel population. Bigger, more aggressive and greedier, they bullied themselves into the red squirrel’s habitat until they became the top dogs (or squirrels, if you like).
Was this the natural order if things? Nature’s way of sorting out the strong from the weak? Ten years previously, did I not myself turn from bullied to bully? Big Pete was never the same again after the curse. With that spell, did I ruin his life?
I didn’t really believe it was a curse. Or maybe I did. Maybe, the force with which I threw that phial , the desperation in my voice, maybe it tricked everybody into believing it. Kids are so gullible and the event fell quickly into the lexicon of school legend. So often, rumour acquires the patina of truth.
The squirrel hopped silently to collect the last grape. I took a handful of gravel and sent it scurrying back up its tree.
The chill of early evening sent me back to the ward. It was there that I found Joyce sat up drinking black coffee. They say those near death sometimes enjoy a brief rally before succumbing to the quicksand of eternity and so it was with Joyce, who greeted me with a wide crinkled smile.
“Tom! That’s a sight for sore eyes! Come here, sit down next to me and tell me what you know. You didn’t bring me any grapes did you?”
Cursing the squirrels, I was about to confess my lack of discipline regarding the fruit when Joyce said, “I wouldn’t thank you if you had, I bloody hate them. More importantly, have you brought me, er…”
Joyce looked up and down the ward. I had read her mind. Carefully, from inside my bag I produced her pipe and tobacco.
When Greta and Martin fetched her into hospital, they took charge of the packing and promising to include her pipe, did not include it. As non- smokers, they rightly concluded that smoking was ‘a bad thing’, which indeed, for children and the young, it is. But for an old lady at the end of days to give succour in her last hours? The sneaky way they deceived her came from a meanness of spirit that the buttoned up, tight-lipped siblings possessed in abundance.
They were generous with their parsimony, displaying their austere, cold way of existing at every opportunity. The burrowing in the purse for change for the bus, the fingering of cloth-eared coupons at the till to save twopence off soap powder. Their teetotal approach to pleasure of any kind, ultimately displayed by their decision to co habit, demonstrated their need to conserve heat, money, water and affection.
Although maybe that particular arrangement was designed to conceal the most abundant, flagrant, proscribed excess of them all. I tried not to dwell on that particular scenario.
We managed to negotiate a wheelchair and trundle to a large conservatory at the rear of the wing. An emaciated man with a large bandage around his throat appeared. Connected to a drip on wheels and smiling a toothless smile, he produced a Zippo lighter and lit a skinny rolled up tube of loose tobacco.
Joyce smiled back at him. Leaning slightly out of her chair she said “listen Billy, don’t worry about Margaret, she’s in no hurry to see you, you’ve got a bit longer yet. Trust me.”
On hearing this, Billy’s eyes filled. He thanked her and embarrassed at his overt display of emotion, retreated back to his ward, his drip following faithfully behind.
“How do you know him?”
“I don’t. Old habits die hard.”
“Was Margaret his wife? Has she passed? ”
Nodding, Joyce lit her pipe. Sat in her wheelchair, she suddenly looked weary, worn down, old. Her advice to the elderly man, dispensed with a tired, off-hand manner, seemed to me an almost unconscious act, done without any thought, any effort, something she’d done all her life, something she could do with her eyes shut. I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to ask her and so little time to do it.
But what Joyce said next not only threw me completely, it opened the door to a secret world, the world of the medium.