Seth slumped in the chair next to my hospital bed, his long legs stretched out in front of him, dark hair flopping across his face. He looked exhausted.
“Hey – why don’t you go home now?” I suggested. “You look wrecked.”
Seth laughed wearily. “No offense, Evie – but have you looked in a mirror recently? If either of us is looking wrecked – I think you’ll find it’s you.“
As it happened, I had looked in the mirror – when I had managed to coerce the nurse into letting me go to the bathroom earlier – a bedpan being just one indignity too many after a day full of them already – and Seth was right. The egg protruding from my forehead was already turning various shades of purple; add to that the stitches above my eyebrow, the fat lip and the swollen tongue and altogether I was a far from pretty sight.
“Yeah, I’ll give you that one. Still – could be worse. At least I’m not fish food.” I said, with a casualness that I didn’t really feel.
“That’s not even vaguely funny, Evie” Seth snapped, which wasn’t like him at all.
“Hey - I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to seem flippant.” I placated. “I know how lucky I was. I also know that the reason I’m still here is thanks to you.”
Seth reached out and took my hand that rested on top of the stiff blanket, curling his fingers into mine.
“No, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to bite your head off. It’s just been a long and freaky day.”
I studied him as he spoke and saw the toll the events of the day had taken on him in the dark circles under his normally bright eyes.
“You scared me Evie.” he continued quietly, staring at the floor. “When you came out the water, and you weren’t breathing, and I saw the blood – I thought ……I thought I was too late.” His voice cracked. “And then, when you came round…… you were so scared – I never saw you like that ….. I didn’t know how to help you…” I couldn’t stand to see him like this, to be reminded of what I’d put him through. I wanted to see him smile.
“Sure you’ve seen me that scared – remember the school trip to St Aubin’s Fort at primary school and that kid Glen with the glasses filled my welly with sand eels and I didn’t realise until I put it back on and then I couldn’t get it off again – you practically had to pin me down while Mr Bateman pulled it off – now that was me scared” I shuddered at the memory even now.
I was successful – kind of. He smiled wanly at the memory. “Yeah – you were pretty hysterical. That was different though. Those sand eels were real. When you came round in the ambulance today, you were ranting about things that weren’t even there – glowing lights and people trying to drown you – I was right in front of you but it was like you didn’t even know it. It was – weird. Really weird. Freaked me out.”
I tried not to let it show, but hearing it recounted from Seth’s perspective freaked me out too – the time between him pulling me out of the water and arriving here at the hospital was a blur and I had a suspicion that perhaps that was for the best. I didn’t want to remember what had been going through my head in that lost hour.
“I’m sorry you saw me like that. You know, I think that the bang on the head and shock and lack of oxygen – it must have just scrambled my brainwaves for a bit. But I’m fine – no permanent damage done. I can go home tomorrow – the doctor said I only have to stay in tonight as a precaution. So really – go home, get some rest and I’ll call you as soon as they let me go in the morning – I could do with some sleep now myself”.
Seth stretched and unfolded himself from the chair “Ok – well if you’re sure…….”
“I am – now go on, get home, I’ll be fine – promise” I assured him,
He rose, hesitated, then leaned over the bed and kissed me gently on my unbruised cheek. He straightened up and we stared at each other awkwardly. Close as we were, it was the first time I could recollect that Seth had ever kissed me – apart from maybe when I’d forced him to play weddings when we were kids. I was both shocked and touched. The flush in his cheeks told me how uncomfortable it had made him to offer that gesture and it made it even more precious.
“Night then” he mumbled, and turned to walk away. I composed myself and called after him. I didn’t want him to leave thinking he’d overstepped the mark.
“Seth – hey”
“I really owe you one”
He smiled mischievously, looking more like himself. “Don’t worry. I won’t forget.”
When he was gone, I clambered down off the bed and drew the curtains along either side. The beds to my right were empty but the two to my left were occupied and I had no desire to swap war stories. I needed some alone time. Visiting time over, the ward was quiet now, the only light coming from the soft circular pools cast by those bedside lamps that had been turned on by the bed’s occupants so that they could read before settling down to sleep.
I suspected that, tired though I was, sleep would evade me tonight. Maybe I should have asked the nurse for something. I settled back against the bulky pillows and, although the healthier option might have been to try and block it all out, picked up the bizarre images of the day and began to scrutinise them, turning them over in my mind, one by one.
I remembered being in the emergency room; sometimes Bell and Lucy’s flakieness irritated me, but not then. I had never seen them so solemn. Mum had arrived soon after. She had swung like a pendulum between berating me for my stupidity one second to fervently hugging me the next, sobbing continuously, even after she knew I was still in one piece.
Her behaviour had unnerved me – Ruth Devine was not a woman prone to emotional extremes – in fact, I was frequently in awe of her ability to maintain an infallible aura of calm in the midst of chaos. I put it down to the years of practice she’d had raising me and my five sisters before me. And Dad, loveably eccentric and hugely intelligent though he was, frankly took as much looking after as we did.
I had seen a side to my mother today that I had seldom glimpsed before. Perhaps once, when my grandfather had died, but that was ten years ago and I’d been too young then to really understand complex adult emotions like grief. But I recognised the same look in her eyes today that I’d seen then. What I didn’t understand this time round was why the sorrow didn’t fade from her expression even after she knew I was going to be fine. As if it was taking her a while to shake off the dread that had gripped her when she had picked up the telephone and heard the news, even though the danger had now passed.
I hoped that someone – Dad, or perhaps my eldest sister Steph – had thought to tell Gran what had happened. The jungle drums beat fast in a small community, especially when the news was bad – and I didn’t want Nan hearing a version of events even more sensational than the reality had been, a version which would probably be embellished to the point of culminating in my watery demise. I’d go and see her as soon as I could once I got out of here, put her mind at rest.
The ward was quiet now – slow rhythmic breathing from one bed, a soft muffled cough from another. I closed my eyes hoping that sleep would find me too and bring this day to an end at last. But behind the darkness of my eyelids, the thoughts kept on coming, until finally, inevitably, they turned to the one thing that I wanted to forget the most.
The image of the – the what? hallucination ? apparition ? – that I had experienced under the water was still starkly etched on my brain. Some of the events that had come after may have been hazy, but not this one. The moments that I would most choose to erase were the ones I could unfortunately recollect with painful clarity. The most plausible – safest – conclusion, I decided, was that what I had seen under the water had been nothing more than my brain playing a very vivid trick on me as payback for first bashing it on the raft and then starving it of oxygen.
I would have loved to accept that explanation and move on, but I always have been a terrible liar. Even to myself. I knew that head injury or not, the faces I had seen – the woman’s especially – and the feeling of my mind being invaded, had not been a hallucination.
I didn’t want to think about it anymore. Not tonight. Not on my own. But I was wide awake, so, as the sweet escape of sleep wasn’t an immediately available option, I picked up one of the magazines Mum had thoughtfully left for me, hoping that a combination of celebrity fashion faux pas and low fat muffin recipes would be enough to render me comatose.
I was busily trying to lose myself in “Top ten tips for a flatter stomach” (hopefully it would be another few years before I would need to put them into practice – but it never hurt to be prepared) when, between the gap I’d left in the curtains at the end of my bed to give myself an easy exit if I needed the loo in the night, I glimpsed a white gowned figure wandering past. I felt a flicker of unease; the figure definitely wasn’t a nurse and the other two patients in the ward were asleep – I knew this for a fact because I’d been jealously listening to their deep regular breathing for the last ten minutes. So who was it wandering around in here at this time of night?
My already fried imagination instantly began to conjure up a plethora of worst case scenarios – an escaped lunatic, an angel of mercy serial killer (yeah, I know – ludicrous – but it had been a helluva day)so imagine my relief when the wanderer reappeared at the end of my bed and was revealed as nothing more sinister than a very bemused, very lost looking man, mid-thirties, sandy-haired and sporting one of those unfortunate back fastening hospital tunics that can cause embarrassment at any moment (I’d been wearing one myself earlier in the day, until Mum had rescued me from the humiliation by fetching my pyjamas from home.)
He looked so confused by his surroundings, that he didn’t notice me sitting there on the bed, still clutching my magazine, until I subtly cleared my throat to make him aware of my presence. Only then did he turn towards me, a look of surprise on his face.
“Erm – are you lost?”
“Ah – oh – sorry – didn’t mean to disturb you – I – I’m looking for my wife”
” Well, I don’t think you’ll find her in here . Which ward are you in ? Maybe she’s there?”
“I looked there too – I - I just really need to find her “
He looked so vulnerable standing there, in his undignified attire, his eyes wide and confused in his pale face, that I felt compelled to try and be of some sort of assistance to him. I let the magazine rest in my lap, forgotten.
“Well – where did you last see her? “
“I – I’m not sure. I was a bit out of it earlier – I came off my bike and I think I must have knocked myself out because I don’t remember how I got here. Ambulance I suppose. When I woke up, Cath – my wife – was there – then I think I must have nodded off and when I woke up she was gone – but she wouldn’t have left – not without telling me she was going first”
“Maybe she thought you were asleep for the night – it is late you know. She’ll probably be back in the morning.”
The man mulled it over for a second and seemed to relax a bit.
“I’m sure you’re right – that must be it. What time is it now – I’ve lost track”
I checked my watch.
“Half ten – visiting hours finished ages ago – the nurse probably told her to go home”
“Too late to give her a call – I might wake our son. He’s only five – Samuel his name is” He smiled when he mentioned his son and it transformed his face into something warm and kind.
“I’m probably just making a big deal over nothing. It’s just – when Cath was here earlier I kind of got the feeling she was mad at me. She gave me the silent treatment – wouldn’t answer me when I spoke to her. I just hoped she was still here so we could sort it out tonight – I hate going to bed on an argument. Me and Cath have a kind of pact about that” he continued, looking slightly embarrassed that he was divulging this deluge of personal detail to someone whose name he didn’t even know.
“I’m sure she’s not mad at you” I reassured him, secretly thinking that his wife must be a total cow if she could give him the cold shoulder when he was lying in hospital. “If she was upset it was probably just because you gave her a scare – you should have heard the ear bashing I’ve had off my mum today!”
He smiled ruefully. “Cath always hated me having the motorbike – said it was an accident waiting to happen – said I should find a safer way to get through my mid-life crisis.”
“I’m sure she’ll come round once the shock wears off. Though seeing as you’ve ended up in here – maybe she’s right?” I offered tentatively.
“Maybe so” he shrugged “I’m Dan, by the way”
“Well – thanks Evie. I must admit I was in a bit of a panic just now . But talking to you was just what I needed. Really – thanks”
“Glad to have been of service” – and I meant it too – it was a pleasing thought that I was in some small part responsible for the relieved look on his face.
“You want me to get the nurse to see you back to your bed ?”
“Oh – no – don’t worry about it – I think I can make it on my own. Well – I’ll let you get back to your magazine. Nice meeting you”
“You too, Dan. Get well soon”
A fleeting look of uncertainty crossed the man’s face for a second and then it was gone.
After a final exchange of goodnights, he went on his way. I didn’t even hear his footsteps as he left the ward.
I said a silent thank you of my own to Dan – it seemed that talking to him had been just what I needed too. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmingly drowsy. He’d succeeded where the magazine had failed.
I clicked off the bedside lamp. I reckoned that if I closed my eyes and breathed slowly, I might actually grab a bit of much needed shut eye after all ………….
Click below for chapter 3