I Dream of Lavender
Harry thought, for an instant, that he’d been attacked.
One second he was wondering whether to select the Cranberry or whether to treat himself to some of the Huntsman’s, and the next he was flat on his back, looking up at a rainbow coloured sea of bodies, all with the same anxious ‘O’ in the middle of their faces.
He assumed he’d been hit with a hammer, the pain had been so sudden and so intense. He had no idea why anyone would choose to wallop a pensioner in the cheese aisle in Waitrose, but then, you read about such unprovoked attacks in the tabloids almost every day.
Harry tried to stand, but was conscious of being held down on the cold floor. Something warm but rough was shoved under his head, and then taken away again as his good Samaritan obviously wondered whether that was the ‘right thing’ to do.
He thought he heard a distant siren. Shame flooded over him. Again he tried to struggle to his feet, but the crowd, now apparently being shooed away by someone in a business suit, was still too close, milling about like sheep in a pen.
He grew strangely comfortable, there, on the floor. A warmth crept through his body and he moved his legs to get into a better position to sleep. It had been a long time since he’d slept well. At least three years – since Edna…
Another man, dressed in green, took charge and bent over Harry, forcing him into wakefulness again. Harry knew he was speaking to him but his words drifted in and out of his consciousness. Harry was upset. He felt he wasn’t being terribly helpful, but part of him just didn’t care at this precise time. It was all terribly strange. Harry didn’t like people who were deliberately rude to others.
The next two days passed in a blur for Harry.
It was lunchtime on the third day that he finally began to make sense of the comings and goings on the ward. Mornings were busy, afternoons, not so much. Visitors would come in, in ones and twos (usually ones – an elderly gent or lady making their slow way up the length of the ward to sit by a bed and hold a flaccid hand for an hour, a hard toffee clacking as it knocked against dentures passing for conversation) and then depart again, creaking back out of the doors until the same routine would be repeated next day.
No visitors for him though.
Edna had never been blessed with children and though, for a while, it had been a topic they avoided, over time they grew to accept it and the empty place in their lives was filled, for the next 15 years, by a bouncy black and white collie they called ‘Bob’ after the cartoon character of the time.
When Edna had gone, leaving his life and his bed, he had thought his heart would break, and lived in the full expectation of death for the next six months. When it didn’t claim him he reckoned there must be a reason he was obliged to soldier on, and settled down to his new, quieter life. His one indulgence, apart from a wedge of a tasty cheese every week, was a fresh bunch of lavender, to be displayed on the sideboard in the hall by the door, its scent the last thing that he smelled when he left the house and the first thing to greet him whenever he opened the door. It had been Edna’s favourite flower and the deep, heavy bouquet was completely and utterly linked to her in his mind.
The ward was run by Nurse Stevens, a stickler for attention with a heart of gold. She seemed to have a nursing trainee called Pamela constantly in her not inconsiderable wake. Harry liked to watch the two women working; Stevens in charge and the younger Pamela simply and efficiently in awe. Other women (and one man) moved in and out of Harry’s line of sight from time to time but it was Stevens and Pamela that were the constants. He wondered if they ever slept.
During the long, low-lit nights when Harry sometimes lay awake counting the minutes before the early morning shift was due to come on duty, he fancied he could hear Stevens humming gently over by the nurses’ station, and from time to time, Pamela would walk by, see his eyes glittering in the semi-light, and ask him if he wanted a cup of tea. The tea was generally cool, and served in a closed mug with a straw, testament to the current poor muscle tone in his hands. Often he simply shook his head, preferring to lie and watch the world go by.
It was during one of these nights that he heard the dog. A sharp clatter of canine claws on the lino. A retriever, golden and sleek, passed the bottom of his bed and settled by the bedside of the man to his left.
Harry hadn’t paid much attention to his neighbour. The man seemed to sleep a great deal, and when he was awake he didn’t seem interested in anyone or anything. Harry watched as the dog raised its big head and then eased itself on to its back legs, using its muzzle to root around the sheets for the man’s hand. When it found the slender fingers, its long pink tongue coiled around them until the fingers responded, first tentatively, then with enthusiasm, fondling the velvet muzzle, searching the head, exploring the dog’s face.
The man moaned and dragged himself up on to an elbow.
“Chancer!” he said, tears sparking from his eyes. The dog responded immediately, it’s huge tail flapping from side to side enthusiastically. Its front paws were scrabbling over the man’s body now, and he was hugging the beast to his chest, pressing his head into its neck. Chancer pulled free and dropped to the floor. It turned to the door. Harry watched as the man snatched at the creature’s collar to prevent it leaving.
“You’re going nowhere,” he told it. “Not without me. Sit!” Chancer sat.
The old guy dragged his scrawny body out of the smooth sheets and placed his bare feet on the cold lino. He grasped the leather collar firmly and made a forward movement with his hand.
“Home!” The command was firm and Chancer bounded to his feet. The man had to trot to keep up initially, but the dog quickly fell in with his pace. They made it past the nurses’ station without drawing attention, and Harry watched as the ward doors swung closed behind them. He was still smiling as he fell asleep.
Next morning when he awoke, the first thing he did was check to see if his neighbour had come back yet, but the curtains were drawn round the bed. He dozed off again. When he woke next, the bed was occupied by a different man, younger and livelier. That afternoon, Harry got his first visitor.
It was Edna. He was surprised when she walked into the ward, but his happiness knew no bounds. She looked exactly the same as she had when she left the house that last time, the yellow top with the flowers and the brown skirt. Her dark red coat was open and she was carrying the brown shopper she always took on a Tuesday.
“Hello Harry,” she said, her smile spreading across her face like sunshine over a garden.
He thought she had the kindest eyes he had ever seen, and he felt a tear roll down his face at the sight of the woman he had loved for nearly sixty years.
“Edna,” he said. “You’ve come back.”
“Only for a short time, Harry. Just to see how you are. Are they treating you well?”
He tried to lift his hand to stroke her face, but he couldn’t. “Well,” he said. “They’re kind, they’re gentle. They seem to know what they’re doing. How are you?”
“I’m fine Harry. Better than fine. I miss you.”
“Then come back.”
“You know I can’t.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a tissue. She leaned over, releasing the lavender smell he loved so much, and wiped his face.
“I need to go now, my love.” She murmured, breathing a gentle kiss onto his forehead. “Come and see me again,” he urged, trying to grab her arm, but unable to muster the energy or the strength to close his fingers.
“I’ll see you again soon, I promise.”
He watched through a veil of tears as she left the ward as quietly as she’d come in. For the rest of the day he was inconsolable. He cried on and off for hours and even Pamela’s ministrations could not stem the flood.
In the early evening, Stevens came to his bed, made copious notes on his papers, smiled and left.
Late that night he was awakened by a man singing.
“I’ve got a coupon. A jolly little coupon, I’ve got a coupon to last me all my days. A coat and a vest, and as for the rest, my coupon will see me through always.”
Digger Harris. Harry strained to look but the darkness was unrelenting. There was a light in the hall outside, and he thought he could make out a helmet moving around, the corridor light glancing off the dull metal, but his logical mind pulled him back.
Digger was long gone. A shell in 1942 had robbed the world of that mine of dreadful puns and worse singing.
“Son of Digger then,” Harry thought, as he drifted off again.
Next morning, during rounds, Harry woke to find a vase of flowers by his bed. A collection of hyacinths in a faux crystal vase was now perched on his bedside cabinet. Their scent was pleasant and happily distinguishable in among the more clinical ward odours.
Stevens was watching him from her place at the nurses’ station. He tried to smile his thanks, but had a feeling that his face was as crooked as a bent three-penny, and wondered what she would make of the grimace.
She resumed writing and he fell asleep again.
He woke from time to time, once when a new nurse was clumsy when she changed a tube towards the bottom of his bed, and another time when a doctor’s hand poked and prodded his back. He felt the stethoscope, but couldn’t make out what was being said. He was tired. He needed a good sleep, and he just wished they would leave him alone.
The ward was its usual hive of activity, all the more so today because he thought he picked up the word ‘consultant’ being whispered in reverential tones, and he understood they were being visited from on high.
He tried to laugh as Nurse Steven popped the plants into the bottom shelf of his bedside unit and winked at him before heading off again, and he made an attempt to lie still and behave properly when the consultant, a small man in a business suit with a bevy of white coated doctors hanging on his every word, swung by the bed, turned his back on Harry to talk to the others, replaced the notes over the foot of the bed and then sailed on serenely to his next patient, taking the hushed entourage with him.
Harry felt another nap coming on and hoped his snoring would not disturb the efficient ambience of the ward. Edna was forever complaining about his snoring, and used to waken him regularly with a gentle poke in his ribs. As she had aged, and her hearing had lost its keenness, the digs had lessened, and finally, when she was able to take her hearing aid out at night, had disappeared entirely. Harry had no doubt that he continued to snore. There was just no one around to hear him anymore.
When he next drifted clear of sleep, the flowers were back, replaced at some point in the day. Pity it wasn’t lavender. He smiled, breathed in the cloying scent, and slept again.
He heard the clatter of the tea dishes as the ward was cleared in preparation for the night shift coming on, and the busy questioning of the nurses as they exchanged the ‘hand-over’ notes. A catheter here. A bolus there. The words didn’t mean much to Harry, but the nurses made notes on their pads, nodded in the right places and looked towards a prone figure as a name or update in condition was mentioned. Stevens and Pamela were on again. He was glad. There was something comforting about having them around, and he’d grown fond of the women.
Harry watched as the lights on the ward were turned down low in preparation for another night. He was lonely and tired. He felt another tear trickle down his face and wished Edna were here to kiss it away.
Instead, Stevens walked up to him and used a tissue to catch the droplet. He hadn’t noticed her easing him into a different position so that he would not get bed sores, and then tucking the starched sheets around him.
He looked up at her large, kindly face, and was embarrassed as another drop forced its way between his lashes and out onto his wrinkled face. She smiled and gently scooped that one up too. Then she took a stem of pink hyacinth and placed it gently on his pillow. She stroked his hair and stood upright again, then quietly pulled the curtains on each side of his bed, affording him some peace and privacy to sleep.
He was not surprised when she checked him again a short time later, rearranged his limbs and smoothed the bedclothes.
A little later again, he felt the weight by his feet, and wondered why she was leaning so heavily on his legs.
Then he heard a strange, urgent whine. Opening his eyes he was astonished to see, not the blue eyes of the diligent nurse, but a quite different set of amber eyes staring intently at him.
He sat upright in bed, shucking the neatly arranged sheets off his chest and using his fluttery hands to push himself into a more upright position.
The collie, almost completely black with a white flash on his chest and over his nose fairly danced on the bed, turning tight, excited circles by Harry’s feet.
The man laughed with delight, and grabbed at the glossy coat as it slinked first in, then out, of his grasp.
“Bob! You’re going to get me into so much trouble with Nurse Stevens there!”
Bob didn’t appear to care, and thrust his face up into Harry’s, breaking all the hospital hygiene rules in an instant, licking and pawing and licking again, as much of Harry’s hands and face as he could reach.
Harry held the dog close to his chest. More tears escaped him – this time tears of complete joy.
“Bob. I’m so glad it’s you. Come on, lad. Let’s go for walkies.”
The dog bounded off the bed and Harry swung his legs out, tentative at first, then faster as he felt the strength flood into them. Bob half crouched, bracing his front legs, tail wagging, and Harry laughed. “Still a clown I see,” Harry whispered, and bent down to lay a kiss on the dark fur.
“Let’s go then.” He smiled, and skittered along the floor, racing to keep up as the happy dog galloped on ahead.
He was not aware when Nurse Stevens next checked him, reaching into the sheets to feel for a pulse in his cold arm, and then checking to see if she could detect the one that ought to have been in his neck.
She stroked the hair again, and pressed the button at the side of the bed. She lifted the short sprig of lavender from his pillow and replaced it in the vase. She frowned as she looked at the flowers. A glorious swelling of lavender was crammed into the vase, its strong, peaceful scent lingering round the bed. She understood that the sense of smell was reckoned to be the last sense to go when someone is in his final stages. She always tried to give the gentlemen something nice to take away the smell of the ward, even though she would never know whether they noticed or not.
She pulled the curtain round the bottom of the bed, a last act of courtesy.
“Goodnight, Mr Lawrence.” She whispered, as she walked over to the nurses’ station, to write up the notes.