Continued from previous post
My heart plummeted two days later when the hospital’s number flashed up on my phone, a call to tell me Henry had taken a turn for the worse. In the absence of any close relative, they asked would I come and sit with him, he was fading fast.
Henry smiled weakly as I pulled a plastic chair closer to his hospital bed. I wasn’t convinced he recognised me. I took his hand in mine. Once strong and capable, now its joints were pronounced. The loose, transparent skin clearly showed his raised purple veins.
“How are you feeling Henry? You’ve missed a lovely sunny day.”
He looked slightly confused, and soon his eyelids fluttered shut. I picked up his paper with the crossword, which would usually be at least half complete with Henry’s distinctive sloped writing. Today it was pristine, untouched. I pushed down my despair and remembered happier times when we’d sit in opposite armchairs, Henry throwing out clues for me to solve. He always knew most of the answers. Reading so much had made his vocabulary excellent, but occasionally I’d solve a clue that he couldn’t. If we were unsure, he’d fill in our guess with faint writing, not easily done with a ballpoint pen!
When Henry’s eyes next opened, he began smiling and waving, greeting people who I couldn’t see. He would reach down, moving his hands as if petting a dog and grinning widely. Although it was a little unnerving to watch, I was glad he was having a happy dream.
I wandered away to get a coffee from the vending machine then tried to get comfortable in the plastic visitor’s chair with my book. The nurses moved about quietly, intermittently checking Henry’s pulse and the tube which drained his bladder. I stood up to stretch my stiff shoulders and move my legs. When I checked the time, I knew I should get home to Mabel.
Henry’s eyes opened again so I whispered hello.
“It was you who realised that something was off, wasn’t it?” he asked, as if he and I had been in mid conversation.
“Yes,” I agreed, hoping I’d fall in step when he told me more.
“You wondered how he could afford that holiday.”
“I did,” I nodded, although I was none the wiser.
Henry drifted back to sleep, leaving me wondering who he had mistaken me for. My guess was Audrey, although it could have been any female from his past.
When I lay in bed that night, I wondered who Henry had been discussing. Whose holiday budget had raised his concern? It wasn’t a topic which had cropped up in any anecdotes he’d previously shared. Before closing my eyes to sleep, I said a prayer for Henry to feel stronger, to rally with his health improving. Having observed him since he’d been admitted to hospital, my desperate fear was that I was watching a clockwork toy as it wound down.
Hospital had made Henry a fish out of water, separated him from his beloved garden and cosy house crammed with decades of history. I was sure if he could come home, he would make a better recovery. I wondered fretfully when Bruce would call me, or whether he’d already contacted the hospital directly.
The next day was Sunday, so I was able to visit Henry after lunch. I brought a small piece of apple pie, which I hoped might cheer him. He seemed a little more alert than the previous day.
“Hello, have they fed you?” I pulled up the orange chair beside his bed.
“Yes. There was this bowl of grey mousse, I couldn’t tell whether it was starter or dessert.”
“What did it taste like?”
“Nothing really, I ate it first anyway.”
I laughed, feeling equally puzzled. “Perhaps it was mushroom soup?”
“Could have been,” his smile squeezed at my heart.
“Well you can have this later.” I slid the lidded box onto his tray. “It’s made with apples from your tree that we picked this summer.”
“I’ll have it now,” he looked quite animated, and I felt strangely proud.
Tucking into it with the spoon I’d brought, his eyes shut with pleasure as he chewed.
“I can taste the sunshine,” he smiled, and I think both our minds drifted back to the afternoon picking up windfalls with Mabel keeping us company in his back garden.
“I used to scrump for apples when I was a boy,” he passed the tupperware box back to me, traces of crumbs left behind. “Only the once mind, because the village copper told my Father what I’d done and I got a proper hiding. Me and my friend Tommy had to rake up leaves in the orchard where we’d stolen the apples to make amends for our theft.”
“How did they know it was you?”
“Tommy ate some of the big apples, didn’t realise they were sour ones for cooking. When he got guts ache, his Ma was worried, and that’s when the truth came out.”
“Silly boy!” I laughed. “Well I suppose you both learned some valuable lessons.”
Henry looked suddenly tired, his eyelids drooped and his mouth went slack. I watched his chest rise and fall, his breath seemed more laboured today.
Picking up my phone, I flicked through my messages, then to pass more time, I scrolled through my photos and found some of Henry, me and Mabel. He was wearing the scarf I’d knitted him for his birthday, had it tucked into the neck of his jacket. In another Mabel was curled in his lap while he held a fan of playing cards – probably beating me at gin rummy! This dear man was a part of my life and I didn’t want to let him go.
I saw a nurse at the door and stood up to talk to her.
“Has his son Bruce been in touch?”
“I think he phoned for an up-date on his progress, let me check our records.”
In a few minutes she came back, her thin plastic apron swishing against her green cotton dress.
“Yes he’s called once. Of course Henry wasn’t quite so frail then …” her voice trailed off, and we both watched his sleeping form in the bed. “I think we’d better call him again.”
With a heavy sense of inevitability, I returned to the plastic visitor’s chair.
Henry stirred a little. Seeing me it took a few moments, but he registered who I was.
“Oh Ruby sorry, I don’t want to sleep when you’re kind enough to visit me.”
“Don’t fret Henry,” I took his hand in mine, “you had a big meal, it would make anyone tired. Do you want to do the crossword? I’ve brought a pen.”
Folding the paper to the correct page, I read out a couple of the clues, but he was stumped by them. I knew one of the answers so I wrote it in.
“Well now we have that one, we know that game bird, 8 letters, begins with a P,” I said looking at him expectantly.
“The truth always comes out,” he said.
Now I was stumped, were we having a conversation where he’d dreamed the earlier part?
“What do you think to pheasant for game bird Henry? It’s the right amount of letters.”
“Sounds right Ruby, pencil it in.”
We didn’t get much further with the crossword because Henry couldn’t concentrate and I felt too worried to care about anagrams or clues.
“Tell me more about your parents, were they strict?” I couldn’t help wondering about getting a hiding.
“My Father was firm but fair. I got into lots of scrapes as a boy, always breaking windows or going where I shouldn’t.” Henry’s voice was low, I leaned close to catch his words. “But I never stole again, not after those apples.”
“And your mother?”
“She was lovely, a good cook, like you. Once she let me eat a whole bowl of cake mix!”
“What – raw?” my eyes went wide.
“She knew I loved to scrape the bowl, so one time she gave me the mixture rather than baking it into a cake. It must’ve been once rationing ended and we could get eggs again.”
“Did you like that better than cake?”
“Oh yes,” he nodded, his eyes getting the look of someone lost in a memory.
“I made banana bread once, the batter for that was nicer than the cooked version!”
“Banana bread? I’m not sure I’ve tried that.”
I noticed the nurse was hovering again, holding a little plastic cup.
“Looks like it’s time for your pills Henry. I should get back to Mabel.”
As I stooped to kiss him goodbye his eyes met mine. “Thank you for everything Ruby.”
“Friends don’t need to say thank you,” I said, fighting the threat of tears.
To be Continued …