The Visitor – a short story
The last brief encounter
From the doorway he had to look to the far end of the ward to see his friend. Martin was lying back, deep in pillows. One leg was swung up in front of him. It had been smashed against the side of his motorbike by a car which had been driven out of a side turning.
“How are you then?.” Martin had not seen his friend approach. He was not asleep but he was not alert. His face was pale under his fair hair, and his eyes and his mouth moved slowly when he spoke.
“Not so bad. What about you?”
“Oh, all right.”
His visitor paused and looked directly into his friend’s face. “You’re in a bit of a state.” Again he paused.
“Your mum said I’d find you here.”
“So you’ve heard, then.” Martin nodded towards his damaged leg. “You know all the gory details.” They smiled weakly; Martin’s mother was never short of a word or two.
“What about Maureen then? Good job she wasn’t on the back.”
This time the thin young man said nothing but shrank back, down into the bedclothes. A memory of something painful distorted his face and he turned away. He jammed his head back into the pillow for a moment then tried to pull himself around to get comfortable. For a second, there was a flush of colour in his face and then it faded again.
The visitor had made his way past the other men, past the plasters and the pulleys, and past glimpses of medical indignity: the darkened, healing flesh, the bowls and containers and the thin, almost invisible wires looping from pale flesh back to the machines watching over the men in their beds. There were few other people to see the patients. The winter light was fading outside and with it had gone the afternoon visitors, the wives, mothers and children. It was too early for the evening callers. They would come with the dark. Now the ward was quiet.
“Dave’s got your bike down at the garage.” The visitor watched for a response; he was trying not to mention the leg that hung above the bed, so close that he could have patted it. He had seen the machine. They had removed it from the truck and dumped it outside in the rain. He wondered whether Martin’s father had said anything yet.
“A right-off. Dad told me.” For a moment, some energy returned. “Stupid bloody cretin – God knows how he got a licence.”
“Insurance cover you then, for a new bike?”
Martin’s face paled again and he stirred under the sheets. His visitor waited.
“I know it won’t cover me leg.” His visitor looked up.
“What d’yer mean?”
“I could get a new bike, easy, but not a bloody leg.” His visitor looked at the raised limb that pointed down to the rest of the body.
“What’s happening about yer leg then?”
“Job to say yet.”
“What d’yer mean?”
“They’re going to x-ray it again, then probably one, maybe two more operations.” There were traces of energy again on the young patient’s face. He noticed his visitor’s anxiety.
“Oh, it’ll be okay, eventually. Bit of a limp, but probably no stick. It’ll have to do.”
At the far end of the ward, by the main door and the nurses’ office two visitors moved gently in and settled themselves by the first bed. Martin was unaware of them and his visitor spared them but a moment’s glance.
“Oh, I won’t be dancing again, if that’s what yer mean.”
They had gone together to a dance in the town hall where they had met Maureen and a friend. He had watched them dance together for the first time and had seen Martin sweep the girl around the hall in a ballroom hold. For the life of him, he could not work out the strength of such a small young man – Martin stood about five feet five, shorter than him and not much taller than this new partner. Martin’s skill and the girl’s exhilaration amazed him.
They held one another as if locked together, like the china figures on the mantelpiece in Martin’s home. And yet they moved, and smiled. That was it, they enjoyed their dancing and it showed. They were slim and quick on their feet. Their dancing meant much to them; there was something about the way they looked at each other. With Martin’s mum and dad, they watched the BBC’s “Come Dancing” and listened to his mother’s commentary, far more entertaining than the presenter’s.
“Cor, ‘e’s got a right bloody armful there.” They all laughed, crowded around the new colour set. “Wait till they get home!”
“Don’t be so bloody daft; that ain’t his missus.”
“That’s what I mean.”
And so they had prospered, this young pair, just out of their teens. The friend had watched them dance and dance and dance in a way which he would never match.
Then one afternoon, just as he got home from work, Martin’s mother had appeared on the doorstep.
Martin was just twenty. It had taken the police four hours to find his father – before the surgeons would operate the father had to sign a consent form. The visitor, this young friend, had taken the anxious parents to the hospital and waited for the end of the operation. Then he had waited while the surgeon had spoken to the parents. The leg had been saved. Three days had passed since.
The visitor was standing up now. He walked very slowly, very deliberately, around the foot of the bed. How was he going to continue the conversation? How was he going to cope with the new sound in his friend’s voice, the sound of a victim?
Then something caught his eye, way down the ward.
It was as if he had known who she was ever since she had come into the ward. He had watched her sit with the other visitor next to the first bed. He realised now why he had been watching her while he was talking to Martin. Just then she turned towards him and sat very still for a moment. She looked at him quizzically. Then her smile spread across her face.
“Err, just a minute Martin.” The young man in the bed twisted his head round and saw his friend making off down the ward. Beyond him a young woman was advancing, cautiously, but advancing. Beyond her a bedside conversation continued.
There was no need to check identities, to say, it is you, isn’t it, or to ask, what are you doing here? There had been no word between them for about eight years – he did a quick calculation – and he had not seen her for about half that time. She had changed a lot and yet she was still just the same. She looked even better than the schoolgirl he remembered; yes, it was about five years since he had last seen her and then she had been in school uniform.
She held his gaze with her smile and slowed down as she came up to him. She stood boldly in front of him. Under the dark hair her face shone. Like her companion, she was wearing a dark coat.
“You look well.”
“You too. How’s Ann?” He remembered the older sister.
“Friend of yours?” He nodded towards the far bed.
“Well, actually, Henry’s brother.” She tilted her head towards the door and looked round quickly. “Skidded into a wall last week. You know what the roads’ve been like.” He nodded; for just a moment he thought of Martin’s bike.
“What about your friend?”
“Oh, a mate from the village – we live up this way now.” He followed her eyes round towards Martin. “Another accident. What about you?”
He really wanted to ask who Henry was – there was something settled and proprietal about the way she had used his name. “What are you doing with yourself?”
“Job up in town. It’s all right.”
“Still at home?”
“Yep. Till Henry and I get things sorted out.” She felt him look straight at her; his question did not require words.
“We’re planning an engagement party, sometime.”
“Oh. Congratulations.” For a moment he was conscious again of Martin somewhere behind him. “Big do?”
“Just family and close friends.”
He smiled and nodded his head slowly.
“Still see the old crowd then?”
“Sometimes. They get together in The George on Friday nights so we see them up there. What about you?”
“Busy at college and work in the holidays.” He thought of the potato harvest that had occupied him for most of the day. “I’ve a year to go yet and I’m not sure where I’ll end up. I see Barry sometimes but it’s a bit of a hike in from the sticks.”
“Still mad about farming then?”
“Yeah.” He shifted on his feet. “Do you come up this way at all?” She shook her head. He continued. “I sometimes meet Chris, you know, the noisy one at the bus stop. His family live in the village now. I met up with them in the local the day they moved in.” He noticed her look back at Henry for a moment.
“So, perhaps we’ll bump into each other again sometime.” He slid his hands back into their pockets.
“Sure, I’ll look out for you.” She smiled at him.
“Yeah. That’d be nice.” Beyond her, he saw Henry get to his feet. “Looks as though Henry’s ready.”
She turned and took a step away from him, out of reach already.
“See you then.”
“Yeah, see you.”
He watched them leave then found Martin dozing.
As he sat down again next to the bed he scraped his chair. Martin stirred. As if surfacing from some turgid depths, he turned slowly to his right and then to his left, shook his head quickly as if he had ducked it into a bowl of water and wanted to clear his eyes, then turned to his visitor.
“Oh there you are.” Martin looked away from his visitor towards the door. “Oh, she’s gone then.” For a moment he watched his visitor.
“Nice bit of stuff. No wonder you jumped up so quick.”
“Yeah. Nice girl – at school with me.”
“Know her well?”
“Suppose so. Not seen her since we left. Now she’s engaged.”
“Disappointed?” Martin watched his friend.
“No, these things happen. We hardly spoke to each other at school.”
“Don’t believe you.” Martin smiled his wan smile but his visitor said nothing.
Martin let his head fall back onto the pillow and lay still. His eyes remained open.
The visitor sat and looked over Martin again to the door. The chair where Henry had been sitting stood empty and his brother was asleep again.
He couldn’t remember the name of the film they had gone to see. It had been a warm spring afternoon and they had gone back to his home. Later after tea, they had got back on a bus and he had seen her home. He had left her at the gate and returned to the bus stop. Back at school their classmates’ amusement forced them to disown each other.
Later that term he had been sitting behind her in a Latin lesson. He was bottom of the class and had to sit in the corner of the room. It was a good arrangement for there he could concentrate on the latest edition of “The Farmer and Stockbreeder.” For once, he finished it promptly. He looked up; the lesson was all around him, trapping him in his corner. He stretched out his legs to make himself comfortable again and felt something soft obstruct his foot, down on the floor.
It was easy to draw Mary’s bag towards him and slide it surreptitiously up onto his lap. An envelope drew his attention immediately. From it there protruded a photograph.
She looked very good in a bikini; at thirteen, she had been the first of the girls to fill one. He looked up. The rest of the class were passive, paying enough attention for the teacher’s purposes. There was a sort of hushed equilibrium in the room. He passed the photograph to his right and watched. For a moment the boy stared uncomprehending, then looked up at Mary who was pretending to read her textbook. He smiled, then passed it on. By the time it had reached the other corner, the equilibrium had gone but the teacher continued with her work, her poise, her sense of purpose unchanged. As the photograph made its way around the class, his classmates too followed its progress, well aware of its destination.
For a moment she looked at it in disbelief, then looked up at her audience. They glanced at her whenever they could look away from the teacher and the board. She looked down for her bag that now lay several feet away, right at the back of the room. Then she looked right round and saw his face. For three years she never spoke to him. Then they left school.
“Lucky bugger, eh.”
“Do what?” Martin had been watching him for several moments.
“Lucky bloke. I like the way she upped and went as soon as he was ready – you missed out there, boy.” His visitor said nothing.
“I reckon you’re bloody jealous!” Martin chuckled to himself then tried to stop as a spasm of pain caught him.
“You all right?”
“Yeah – just tweaked this bloody leg.” Suddenly, Martin was looking tired again. He had said nothing about Maureen – had she been to see him? He could see them dancing again, that night when they had all met up for the first time. For a moment he allowed himself to stare down the empty ward.
He looked at Martin and saw him lying there, very quietly. He cleared his throat; there was no response. A nurse appeared from a side door and looked at her watch.
“I think you’d better let him get some rest now.”