survivor

Rafa nods a welcome
dabbing at a plate of
crackers & cheese
heavy with the gravity of it all
the illness, the age, the getting by
the day and the distance
sliding past the window
through the bare trees
of the leisure centre
and the lit, late, relentless commuter traffic

‘What you want?’ he says
and gestures for me to sit

Later, after the examination
making conversation,
proving there’s more to me
than a stethoscope, a badge and a yellow folder
I ask him where he’s from
‘Where am I from?’
‘Yes. Where are you from? Originally.’
‘Originally?’
‘Yes.’
‘Guess’
‘Turkey?’
He shakes his head, takes another bite of cheese
Greece?’
‘No. You want clue?’
‘Yes’
‘An island in the Mediterranean.’
He waits for me to speak.
‘My geography is terrible’
‘Former British territory’ he says.
‘God’
He snorts. He and I both know
God can’t help me now
he finishes the last piece of cheese,
puts the plate to the side
and gently smacks his hands clear
‘Gibraltar?’ I say.
‘Gibraltar is promontory’
He stares at me.
‘More clue?’
‘Please’
‘Much destruction in the war,’ he says. ‘British colony.’
‘Guernica?’ I say, thinking of a distressed horse
‘Guernica?’ he says. ‘Guernica is town in north of Spain.’
He mutters something, takes a sip of his tea
carefully places it back on the table
on top of the plate.
‘Although much destruction in Guernica, too, of course’ he says
staring at the cup, the plate, the papers, the mess pertaining
‘Give up,’ I say.
‘Malta,’ he says, turning his eyes back on me
‘Malta!’ I say. ‘Of course!’
He smiles
‘You know, the British, they gave us medal after the bombing.’
He shrugs
holds one fleshy hand out, palm up.
‘The only problem was, where to put it.’

stars in battledress

‘I’ve never been what you might call quiet,’ says Elsa, tugging the bedclothes up around her neck. ‘That’s one thing you could never accuse me of. I suppose you’re either a talker or you’re not. You never have to worry about awkward silences with me. It’s just the way I’m built. Like being left-handed. Or having a head for heights…’

I’m waiting with Elsa for the ambulance to come. I’d been sent round for an initial assessment, ECG and bloods. But it was clear as soon as I walked in the bedroom that Elsa was acutely unwell. A closer examination led me to suspect she was suffering a serious internal bleed, so I called 999.

‘They’ll be here soon,’ I told her, putting the phone down. ‘Try not to worry. Meanwhile, I’ll get a few things together…’

*

It’s been a while, now. Three-quarters of an hour.

When I go next door to phone ambulance control for an update, I’m told that they’re doing their best, an ambulance will be dispatched just as soon as one is available – only, people are having heart attacks, strokes…. surely I can understand? I know it’s difficult, I tell him, but the fact remains, we need to get Elsa to hospital as soon as possible. She’s compensating reasonably well at the moment, but I don’t think that’ll last much longer. We’re doing our best, they say. Of course, I say. I appreciate your help.

When I hang up I carefully document the delay.

‘Not long now,’ I tell Elsa, going back into the bedroom.

Before what, I wonder. She looks so fragile, lying on the bed like this, the sockets of her eyes ghosting through the pallid stretch of her face.

‘I’m glad you’re here,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t want to do this on my own.’

‘I’m glad I’m here, too,’ I tell her, sitting beside her to do another set of obs. ‘So – go on. You were telling me about Stars in Battledress…’

She’d always been mad on the stage, she says. Singing, dancing, doing sketches. And that was what they wanted. A friend of hers put her up to it. She said I was just the kind of girl they were looking for. It was such a shame what happened to her.

‘Why? What happened?’

‘It was a famous murder case. She was on a cruise ship coming back from a show in South Africa and she was murdered by one of the ship stewards. He tried to make out she’d agreed to have sex with him, but then died of a fit or something, and he panicked and shoved her body out of the porthole. They never did find her body. He was convicted, of course. I think he only escaped hanging because of some loophole or other. Died in prison, years later. Funny how these things work out. Poor Gay. She was such a kind girl, a lovely girl. But these things happen, I suppose. On a ship or anywhere else. You’ve just got to be careful and lucky and hope for the best.’

Elsa tells me about the shows she was in. About one in particular.

‘As well as performing, everyone had a job to do. Mine was to put together these wooden steps for the big dance number in the second half. I was just tightening up the screws when someone dropped a curtain pole straight on my head. Knocked me clean out! When I came to there was only a minute to go before I was on. I had no idea who I was or where I was, but the lights came up, they pointed me in the right direction, and I walked out into the light. Anyway, the words seemed to come from somewhere, so it worked out in the end.’

‘When that show was over I moved into the intelligence corps. I remember – we were all lined up in the corridor, six girls in front, about thirty men behind. You can imagine what that was like. I was the last girl to be called forward. When I heard my name I thought – right! I’ll show these men a thing or two! – so I marched as smartly as I could up to the desk, swinging my arms and hips. But you see, what I didn’t realise was there was this rug just in front of the desk, and the floor was highly polished. As soon as my feet touched the rug it flew out from under me and I slid the rest of the way on my aris, disappearing up to my shoulders in the footwell. The Major he stood up and peered over the edge of the desk.

‘Are you alright down there?’ he said.

‘Yes Sir!’ I said, and saluted, flat on my back, and everyone laughed. But it didn’t do me any harm, apart from a few bruises. They took me on.’

The flat door buzzes. I’m relieved to hear it’s the ambulance.

Two paramedics walk in.

‘Alright?’ says one I vaguely recognise. ‘Wait a minute… didn’t you use to work for us?’

the ghost comes home

‘To be honest with you, I can’t believe I’ve reached the age I have. I had four brothers and sisters, and now I’m the only one left. My sister Judith was the first to go. She was only eleven. I was fourteen. And now here I am, ninety-one! Me and Judith, we used to love going to the pictures on a Saturday. The matinee performance. This one Saturday, my mum stopped me as we were headed out the door. You’re not going out till you’ve sewed that button on your cardie like I asked you to she said. And I was furious about it but I did what I was told. I sewed the biggest button on there I could find, quick as I could, then I took Judith’s hand and we ran off down the street to the cinema on the corner. We were about half way through the main feature when there was an almighty crash and a flash and the whole place came down around us. Because we were late getting there we’d had to sit at the back, not like all the other kids sitting at the front. They were all killed outright. But we made it outside, and Judith, she was badly hurt, worse than me. We both got taken by someone to the hospital, and Judith died a little while later – not that I knew about that straight away, because I was having bits and pieces taken out of me. When I came round in bed a day or so later, the doctor showed me a chunk of metal and d’you know what he said? He said This would’ve finished you off if that button hadn’t taken some of the force out of it. So it just goes to show. I learned later on what happened. A German bomber had ditched its load early trying to get away from some Spitfires that were chasing it. He wasn’t targetting the cinema or anything. It was just one of them things. Didn’t do him no good, though. They caught up with him over the Channel, and that was that. The film? I’ll never forget what that was. A comedy, a silly little thing, only just out. The Ghost Comes Home.

addio catania

‘The doctor, he was here yesterday, he said Squeeze my hands. Hard as you can. I said to him, I said You sure you want me to do that, squire? He said Do your worst. So I grabbed a hold and give him a squeeze, and the next thing you know he was pulling ‘em away shouting All right, mate! All right! You’ve made your point!
Mr Wilson laughs, a desiccated kind of rattle, and shakes his head.
‘I was a stone mason all my life. I could squeeze the juice’ve a pebble.’
I think the doctor was being kind, though. Whilst it’s true Mr Wilson’s wrists are still impressively thick, the rest of his body has been sadly depleted by age and illness, and he pays for his enthusiastic outbursts with a degree of gasping that the oxygen through his nasal cannulae struggles to correct.
I’ve arrived at the same time as Mr Wilson’s morning carers. It’s lovely to see how they chivy him along, making a game of it all, distracting him from the frustrations and indignities of his situation. I’ve no doubt Mr Wilson has been a positive kind of person all his life, though, used to making the best of things. He cusses and carries on in the wheelchair, tetchily snapping the oxygen cable when it gets in his way, kicking his slippers off when they snag in the footrests. The carers obviously love him.

When he’s settled in the wheelchair and recovered his strength, and the carers have given him a peck on the cheek, signed the book and left, he folds his great hands on his middle and shakes his head.
‘I can’t go to Catania,’ he says. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll ever see it again.’
I get the story in short bursts. He fought in Italy during the war. Met his wife there. Settled back in the UK, but every year they went back to Catania to see her family. But his wife died last year, and his illness had progressed, and he was faced with the fact that he’d never see Catania again.
‘I wanted to say goodbye proper, like,’ he said. ‘I wanted to say Addio. Now look at me.’
He picks up the green plastic tube and holds it in front of him, like he was showing me something else, the thing that was tethering him to this world, the line that he’d play out if he could, all the way to the eastern shores of Sicily, and Catania, and his wife, and the adventures and the life they’d had together, so he could relax his grip, and let go the end, and disappear himself, off into the sun.