This month’s extract from Chasing the Tide finds David in a Norwegian hospital recovering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, changing his outlook on life.
Celia is talking to me when the ship stops rolling. Her gliding vowels grace the air, and images of perfection float before eyes that refuse to open. My being is a sacred stillness and pain is but a memory. Two women start talking Norwegian, but they are not the Romsdal women. Perhaps they are angels.
‘Where’s he from?’
My mouth refuses to move in protest.
‘They say he speaks Norwegian;’
‘Needs a shave.’
Disinfectant tickles my nostrils and my bed feels crisp and clean. Forcing my eyes open, I see two faces smiling out of nurses’ uniforms. One has an electric shaver, and the other holds a mirror to my face. Grey paper mottled by stubble is stretched over a skull with eyes peering out of dark caverns.
‘I will shave you;’
‘I can shave myself, thanks.’
The words are silent, and she puts the shaver into my hand, which stays on the counterpane when I try to lift it. They laugh and shave me.
The doctor does his rounds, a bevy of students at his heels.
‘And here we have something you seldom see these days,’ he says, like a zoologist with a specimen thought to have been extinct. ‘Old fashioned pneumonia – doesn’t get this far nowadays, but our Welsh friend was at sea. There was no penicillin, so it ran its course.’ He lowers his voice; ‘almost the full course.’
They stare at their living cadaver and one woman smiles. I smile back, but my lips refuse to move.
‘See how the temperature falls away when the penicillin goes in?’ The doctor holds up my chart. ‘He’s on the biggest dose we dare give him; in the old days it was hot towels on the chest, and they usually died.’
He switches to English; ‘are you being treated well, old chap?’ My eyes say yes and he tells the ward sister I am to have as much food as I want. They pay a cursory visit to the other three beds, but all eyes look my way as they leave. I am a celebrity.
Being alive is a kind of magic. I hold the clinical paraphernalia in the awe Neolithic people would reserve for Stonehenge. Realising that poverty means more than being short of a pint, I make a silent pledge not to waste the rest of the life that is now so precious to me.
‘Do you know where my things are?’ I ask the doctor.
‘With the agents;’
‘I can collect them when I leave?’
‘That may not be for some time yet,’ he says. ‘Walk over to the window, will you?’ He frowns as I totter across the ward; ‘we will find a nice place of convalescence – I will have your things delivered there.’
Days crawl by in the convalescent home. When the grey dawn struggles into late morning, I peer through the double-glazed windows at a thermometer which registers minus twenty degrees Centigrade. Workmen pile snow a metre high at the side of the street, and the scent of burning wood wafts from the timber-built houses. By midday toddlers wrapped in oilskins waddle about like penguins in the gardens, to be hustled back indoors an hour later. Dusk closes in shortly after, when I join the other patients for a lunch of bread, cheese, pate, salami and pickled herrings.
I learn that cars have winter tyres, and that trains and buses run to time. ‘We are organised here, you know – not like England, eh?’
Television is limited to a few hours, and evenings are spent listening to lively accordion music and snatches of Grieg or Wagner. The papers focus on schools, healthcare and housing. Each day one of the nurses brings me a three-days-old Times which begins to put me back in touch with home. Princess Anne has married, and an IRA gang has been convicted of the London bombings. I wonder about my troubled homeland, and am surprised to learn that Harri’s party is in the ascendant, with three members in Westminster.
By coincidence, a letter from Harri reaches me on the same day that my books arrive . He is at university and very enthusiastic too. Handling my books like sacred objects, I place them on the empty shelves on the wall. Durkheim, Comte, Russell, names that used to daunt me are now old friends who have dragged me from the edge of an abyss to the hope of a wholesome future. My life is turning around with every breath I take. As I write a long letter to Harri, a course of action forms in my mind. Harri is my only link with my past, and I will make for the little university town of Seiont.
Each day I plan my visit, the clothes I will wear, the journey, and what I will say when I get there. The Christmas of nineteen-seventy-three skims by, and the time for the execution of my plan crawls into view. There is hardly a week to go when something happens to change my mind. Time is proved a liar, and I learn that most of the platitudes about time are lies. They say time is a great healer, but it can only pretend to heal, and only if nothing chafes the memories raw again. One evening my past confronts me like an avenging fiend.
© Ken Davies 2016
Available on Amazon, Chasing the Tide can be accessed via Tales from Wales or Google. All feedback welcome by e-mail or via review posted on the Amazon Website.