by Mike Day
Ever been caught up in a story?
| The Reader
She slipped the chain onto the front door and turned the deadbolt. 'There, now no one can disturb me.' she thought as her hand rested on the brassware. She moved in a fluid, almost dancing, set of steps over to the big armchair beneath the standard lamp. Her latest book lay on the arm and she plucked it up as she sank gratefully into the over stuffed cushions embrace.
Joan had been a 'reader' for as long as she could remember, on the school bus, on the train to work, in any spare moment. Her mother had called her an escapist, hardly that, she knew that she was an explorer; slipping into the thoughts and memories of other people, seeing their lives distilled into ink and paper.
The time she loved most was the evenings, after she had pulled all the curtains and locked the door, only then could she settle down and begin to read aloud.
She had discovered it by accident several years earlier whilst reading to her nephew, who had stayed during the school holidays, the story had taken on a visceral, immediate quality as she spoke.
Her flat was on the second floor of an old Victorian hospital. Even though it had been totally refurbished, the wind could still be heard howling around the towers and sharply pointed roof above. The rain slated against the window and, just for dramatic effect, a distant flash of lightening glowed through the thin curtains.
She snuggled down, drawing the fleece blanket over her legs as she made herself comfortable.
The pain woke him again, he fumbled with the sheets. Panic gripping him as he failed over and over to get a hold of the thin cotton. Everything was black, even when he moved his head the void followed him. 'Help, Help me!' he croaked desperately.
A cool hand, he knew instinctively a woman's, rested gently against his cheek. 'It's alright Captain. What do you need?'
And then it came back, all the memories, the grief and the full quotient of pain that a man could bare. 'I need to sit up, please.' He asked summoning up the strength to be courteous.
The same smooth hands slipped under his arms and helped him to shuffle up the bed. 'Do you need anything to drink?' She asked kindly.
'No, thank you Sister. I am ok now, just woke with a bit of a start.' He said as he put his two heavily bandaged hands carefully on top of the sheets.
'If you need anything I'm only down the hall' she said.
He heard her hard soled shoes tapping their way down the hall; If, when the bandages came off his eyes, the surgery had failed he would be tapping along the self same corridor with a white stick.
Captain James Evans needed a cigarette. He knew that if he called, a nurse would come and sort him one from the pack beside the bed but he had embarrassed himself enough for one night.
He lay back and his mind began the familiar spiral of memories; The two Merlin engines of his DeHavaland Mosquito had coughed into life, fire bursting out of the rows of exhausts that ran down each side of both engines. He saw his co-pilot Teddy's face briefly lit by the flames. Out there in the darkness a flight of Junka eighty-eights was heading for the Midlands. His kite along with two others would be in the air in minutes, ready to begin the deadly game of cat and mouse as they were vectored into the path of the enemy.
Next he saw the underside of the bomber, pale and ugly in the moon light. It reflected the orange fire from their cannons as they ripped into its belly. He remembered thinking ‘That lot won't drop on somebody’s street.’ even as he started to veer away. The shells must have hit a high explosive, judging by the way it blew apart like that...
The control surfaces were torn and the port side engine had bought it. He turned, in his waking nightmare, to look at Teddy, no one should ever see a friend like that, most of his face and jaw had gone.
He knew that he must have bailed out, but the next thing he could actually remember was trying to beat the flames out on his clothes as he hung in the sky. He probably blacked out after that because the next instant he was waking for the first time, in much the same way, a week ago.
The Doctors were a good bunch, plenty of encouragement and hopeful words, but underneath they all sounded sort of, well, guarded.
Joan put down the book and stretching stood up letting the dark green fleece slip to the floor, she needed a coffee. The kettle was just beginning to boil when her telephone rang.
‘Joan, it’s Tom.’
‘Oh, Hi.’ She said looking longingly at her book.
‘Have I caught you at a bad moment?’ He asked, catching the note in her voice.
‘Oh, no. I was just in the middle of a book, you know how I get.’
‘Noo,’ he drawled. ‘Listen, me and Sue are going down to the pub later, fancy coming?’
‘I was just settling in for the night.’ She said uncertainly.
‘Come, It will do you good. Tell you what, why don’t we pick you up at ten, that way you can feed your addiction and still have a life?’ He said in his most charming voice.
‘Oh go on then.’ she sighed.
‘I don’t know, bloody book worms. Honestly it would be easier if my sister had a nice simple heroine addiction.’ Laughing, he hung up.
Grinning she poured the water into her mug. Outside the storm was thrashing the giant oak trees in the recreational park that had once been the hospital grounds.
The entrance hall had several big photographs of the Hospital in its heyday, put there by the developers, keen to play up the history of the building. In one, soldiers from the Great War were being pushed around the oak trees by nurses in stiff white uniforms.
Joan pushed back the curtain from the centre of the bay window. The street lights from the town beyond the trees flickered as the branches moved. She sipped her coffee and thought about the young men in the photograph.
When she returned to her book she was determined not to let anything disturb her for the next hour. Burrowing down and pulling the fleece up she cocooned herself against the sounds of the storm.
The evenings had been hard to begin with, the sounds of the busy Nurses in the ward next door, the occasional visitors from his Squadron or the local Chaplain helped during the day. But as the doors closed and the Hospital quietened, the silence crept out of the corners and spread like fog over the room. Occasionally a patient would call out in pain, or a pair of Nurses would chatter as they passed his isolated room, but other than that everything was still.
She had entered the room when he was sleeping; he did that a lot, the Morphine had a habit of creeping over him whenever he let down his guard. He had woken to hear her reading in a calm soft voice; Unwilling to disturb her he had lain motionless listening as her words drifted above him in the darkness. Too soon the drug gathered him back into its arms and he slept through the rest of the night.
The next night was just the same. He had wanted to ask her, her name. But, like a child who seeing a stag for the first time, keeps absolutely still, terrified that he might frighten away the miracle, he had remained silent.
Tonight would be different, tonight he would be awake when she came in and he would speak to her.
The clock that he always thought of as being ‘Down the hall’ gave it’s Westminster chime, following it with eight slow sonorous notes. He hung on, occasionally slipping towards sleep but each time catching himself just in time.
He felt that he had only blinked, the drug playing with his perceptions, and there she was, mid sentence, calmly reading, letting the story spill forth, filling the room with colours. He listened, allowing himself to be caught up in the strange story of the woman living alone with her books. He could see the rain on the window, hear wind around the eves, even smell the coffee.
Joan looked up from the book, smiling at the thought of the pilot, lost in his visions of a woman reading.