“Can I have a word doctor?”
“Sure you can.”
Although Dr Lowry was extremely busy he came in to address the patient’s concerns. The man was dying. It was the least he could do.
“Isn’t there another bed some place?”
The man’s jaundiced eyes slid sideways in the direction of his fellow patient.
“Is there a problem with this one? I’m sure the nurses could get you an extra pillow if necessary.”
“No, no. It’s not the bed.”
He lowered his voice a notch and leaned in a little closer.
“It’s the company.”
The doctor nodded as understanding dawned upon him.
The face of the patient in the bed next to his suddenly lit up as a well-built man entered the ward. The two of them shared an intimate whisper as the visitor’s hand caressed the back of his neck.
“Oh great. Now we’ve got two Negros,” muttered his disgruntled neighbour.
“We have a strict policy in this hospital Mr Peters concerning racism and homophobia. So I strongly suggest you keep those views to yourself.”
“You don’t understand. I was raised this way,” he said, as if this were an acceptable explanation.
“That’s no excuse. I’m going to draw the curtain now to give you and them a little space. Hopefully by the time visiting hours are over you will have got yourself together. I’ll be round later to check your catheter.”
As he pulled the curtain around his bed Mr Peters realised the two men next to him were tenderly holding hands.
“Christ!” he hissed.
The Doctor gave him a hard stare before hurrying away to attend to his other patients. Hopefully he’s not going to be any more trouble, he mused, stuffing his stethoscope into his top pocket.
The curtains around Mr Peters moved to and fro with the breeze coming in through the open window. It was a lovely afternoon outside. The air flowing freely through the ward was warm and gentle, filled with the scent of cut grass and freshly massacred daisies. It made a welcome contrast to the faint odour of urine and antiseptic hand gel. Mr Peters tried to concentrate on this instead of the sickening conversation drifting from the couple next door.
“I’ve been really worried about you Carl.”
“Hey…there’s no need to be. As soon as my blood sugar levels are right they’ll let me home. Then we can get back to redecorating the living room.”
“Can’t wait. I’ve missed you,” murmured the other.
Disgust writhed like worms through Mr Peters’ skin. Desperate to block out their voices he struggled to pull his cushion from beneath his head. When visiting time was over Dr Lowry found him fast asleep with it still pressed against his ears.
“Are we that bad?” the man called Carl asked him. He seemed to think it was amusing.
The doctor gave Mr Peters a look that warned him to watch how he answered.
“Since you ask – yes you are. Not everyone wants to hear every sordid detail of your so called ‘relationship.’”
The doctor rolled his eyes and helped Mr Peters into sitting position. As he checked his blood pressure and other statistics Carl calmly observed the other patients on the ward.
“I’m sorry that we offended you,” he said evenly when the doctor had left.
Mr Peters said nothing. It was as though no one had even spoken.
“If love is so offensive to you I’m guessing you must have led a very lonely life,” Carl continued.
Still Mr Peters said nothing. His mind was too busy trying to block out his surroundings – most especially the young man who stubbornly insisted on addressing him when he clearly didn’t want to engage. Talking was a waste of energy. He hadn’t got long left according to the doctors. His kidneys were shot and in the absence of a matching donor there was nothing that they could do. Dialysis was the only thing keeping him alive now. Time was running out.
When they came to take him for dialysis after dinner the infuriatingly placid young man beside him actually wished him good luck.
“I don’t need luck!” snapped Mr Peters. “I need a damn kidney!”
The nurse helping him into the wheelchair frowned at his cantankerous response. Rudely he waved her away and gingerly lowered himself into the chair.
“And I’m not lonely either!” he spat as he placed his feet rather awkwardly on the footrests.
“Course not,” said Carl.
As they wheeled him away Peters glared intently at his knees. He didn’t need anybody, least of all a gay opinionated Negro.
In a distant room in another part of the hospital, the dialysis machine hummed away for three hours cleansing and purifying his blood. It didn’t seem fair that he must spend what little time he had left consumed by this mind numbingly boring occupation. But he could no more change the fact that he was sick than a leopard could change its spots. He was what he was and that was just the end of it.
“This is not my bed,” he protested when they returned to the ward. The nurses were trying to lift him into the neighbouring bed.
“This is Carl’s bed,” he told them.
“Don’t be silly now Mr Peters. It has your name on the board. See?”
The nurse pointed up at the small white board and discovered that sure enough it did.
“Wrong bed Steph. His is the one next door,” a nurse called out from across the room. She came over to help them lower him into the correct bed.
“Are they trying to put you in the wrong bed Andrew?” she smiled tucking in the sheets around Mr Peters.
The dialysis he’d just had meant that he hadn’t the energy to reply.
“You get some sleep now. It’s visiting time in a bit,” smiled the nurse called Steph.
Although his eyes were almost closed when they left him he could still hear their voices receding as they made their way down the corridor.
“He never gets any visitors. Don’t think he has anyone.”
“Yeah, but it’s not surprising given his personality.”
“I guess not. Anyway, I’m going to recommend we move him tomorrow. Two Mr Peters in the same ward is an accident waiting to happen.”
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
At visiting time the tea trolley came by and bought Mr Peter’s senior a cup of tea and one of those dry oatmeal biscuits. He felt much better now. The post dialysis rest had done its job.
“Want me to close those curtains again for you mate?” asked Carl helpfully.
“No. Why do you ask?” he responded irritably. In his annoyance his spilt his tea all down his front and dropped his biscuit. Carl shot over with a handful of tissues to help him soak it up.
“Wouldn’t want you getting all offended again. That’s all.”
“Why the hell would I get offended?”
“Well for one you’re really good at it. And two, that man and his partner over there just kissed.”
Mr Peters shooed him away.
“Go on with you. I’ve got this,” he said dabbing at the tea stains. When he’d done he drew himself up indignantly.
“You’ve got me all wrong,” he announced. “I have no problem with love – as long as it’s decent love, between a man and a woman.”
“Ah. I see. And can you be sure that Mr Yorke’s partner over there really is a woman? It can be hard to tell in this day and age, believe me.”
Mr Peters stared hard at the couple opposite not realising that it was Carl who had planted that tiny seed of doubt. The ‘woman’ was dressed and made up garishly so it was hard to tell with any certainty what specific gender she/he belonged to. For all he knew she could have just been an extrovert. It was hard to say.
“Why don’t you go over there and find out?” Carl suggested.
Mr Peters flushed scarlet.
“Because that’s none of my business!” he blustered.
“So why is my love life your business?”
Andrew Peters could think of nothing to say. He’d never encountered anyone like Carl before who had the consistent ability to display such calm even when putting across a very difficult argument. The only person who came close was his sister Edith. She had died in a gas explosion aged thirty two. There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t miss her.
“My mother was raised by people like you – people who just couldn’t accept the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Her and my father eloped and spent the rest of their married life in Bristol. She never saw her family again. Such a waste.”
“What was their problem with it? The marriage I mean,” asked Andrew.
“My father was black – born in Johannesburg. Here is a picture of them on their wedding day.”
Carl held open his wallet to show Andrew Peters the faded photograph of them inside. At the sight of Carl’s mother adorned in pearls and white lace something like a thunder bolt shot through his bigoted heart. It was Edith his sister!
“Right Mr Peters. We’ve come to move you to another room. Stephanie here will bring your things for you,” announced Dr Lowry appearing without warning beside him. He and three nurses started to fuss around the bed, pressing this lever and pushing that.
“Wait! I need to talk to this young man!” cried Andrew.
“You do surprise me,” said the doctor not missing the irony for one moment. “But I’m afraid we have to keep to schedule and this has to be done now. If you two genuinely want to chat I’m sure something can be arranged later.”
Within a few minutes they were pushing him along the corridor towards another annexe of the ward. Andrew was becoming increasingly distraught.
“But he’s my nephew,” he told them over and over clutching frantically at the lapels of the doctor’s white coat. “He’s my sister Edith’s son.”
Andrew nodded. The doctor smiled in that ‘we know you’re losing it now pal’ kind of way.
“He’s the son of my sister Edith. I didn’t know! You must believe me,” Andrew pleaded. “Please let me see him!”
“You need to calm down Mr Peters. You’re not doing yourself any favours here,” warned Dr Lowry taking his pulse. Frustrated at the lack of understanding, Andrew struggled to stand up.
“Nurse, ten ccs of diazapene please!”
“I think it wise to monitor for at least the next two hours. Keep me informed,” said the medic injecting a small amount of sedative into Mr Peters’ arm.
“Now you just sit back and relax Andrew. It’s important that you enjoy the time you’ve got left.”
Eighteen hours later after a seriously deep sleep Andrew was considerably calmer and ready to welcome his first ever visitor. The young man from ward three East was sitting in the padded chair next to his bed looking surprisingly happy to be there.
“She was an amazing woman my mother. She displayed a unique serenity in everything she did,” said Carl, looking off into the distance.
Andrew sat quietly, head bowed. “She was a very special person.”
Carl smiled and his eyes did a little dance of emotion.
“You have no idea.”
Neither of them said anything for little while. It was Andrew who broke the silence. He needed to fill in the gaps.
“How old were you when she died if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I was just seven.”
“So I’m guessing your father took care of you then?”
Carl shot him a haunted look.
“They both died in the same explosion. I lost them both. Some people said I was lucky to have been at school at the time. I for one never thought so.”
“So who raised you?”
“Three different foster families.”
Why did no one tell us Edith had left an orphaned son? Thought Andrew trying hard to conceal his inner turmoil. Almost immediately he knew the answer. Certain members of the family probably had been told but they didn’t want a black child in the family. He himself had been in the army for several years and had simply been informed that Edith had moved away; that she wanted nothing more to do with anyone. She intended to travel the world and seek out work where she could along the way – or so the story went.
He felt terribly hurt for a long time but he thought he had no choice but to accept her wishes. He hoped that one day she would return and that they could pick up where they had left off. But it wasn’t to be. Seven years later news had broken of her untimely death in Bristol. With no family or friends to object, his parents had buried her as a spinster and had hidden the existence of Carl from everyone. From the very start the man in front of him had been abandoned for being what he was by his very own flesh and blood.
A deep sense of shame descended upon Andrew. If only he could ask his sister for forgiveness. But to do so was impossible.
“I am very sorry for the way I have acted son,” he said, reaching out to grasp Carl’s shoulder with his gnarly hand. “I hope you can excuse the ravings of a stupid old man.”
It was quite a gamble he was taking. For all Andrew knew he might just say ‘screw you’ and walk away.
As always Carl took a second to reply, just as his mother Edith always had.
“I’m glad you’ve made your peace with this. My mother –I mean your sister would have approved.”
Andrew sucked in a deep breath. Who had told him? How did he know? Carl saw in his expression those unspoken questions.
“The nurses mentioned what you had said when they wheeled you from the ward. They never expected me to believe your words.”
“Neither did I.”
“I want a DNA test to prove it. Will you consent?” asked Carl, taking hold of his hand as though it might break.
Andrew nodded and twelve hours later they had the results in front of them.
“So it’s true,” Carl breathed.
“Are you surprised?” Andrew asked.
He wasn’t. He could see Edith as clear as day now peering out from behind those soft brown eyes of his. She was always so gentle and always so kind. Carl was her son without doubt no matter what the DNA results said.
“No,” said Carl flatly. “I’m not.”
Andrew blinked. This was a last minute reprieve he never expected. After years of loneliness and isolation he had discovered family and a warmth he thought he had lost for good.
“I want to give you my kidney,” Carl told him. “They tell me we’re a match.”
Andrew’s lips trembled slightly.
“I know you do. It is just what your mother would have done. But I wouldn’t have taken hers either. I am what I am – a sick, dying old man. And I won’t risk your life to change it.”
For the first time since he’d known him Carl relinquished his calm and rested his head briefly against his uncle’s shoulder.
“A day can make all the difference in the world can’t it?” he said.
“Yes it can. And I’ve a few more of them left yet…” said Andrew with a smile.