As usual it takes me ages to wake up properly. I break the surface of consciousness only to sink down again into troubled, hazy dozing. As I drift to and fro I am aware of a figure in the visitor’s chair. Gradually I piece him together. It’s a man. In a skirt. No, a kilt, with a real fur sporran. He’s wearing a huge arran jumper. One of those cream ones that the fishermen used to wear. Perhaps they still do. Or maybe they wear fleeces and waterproofs now. He should be boiling but he looks pale. His hair is on the long side and sandy coloured. It looks like he’s been dragged through a hedge backwards, or been in a hurricane. His face is unlined, like a baby’s. Not a newborn baby but one a few days old, where the folds and wrinkles from womb-life have had a chance to smooth out and plump up. It’s weird on a grown man. His eyes are dark and I can’t quite grasp their colour; slate grey, or hazel, or green. They change every time I blink.
He says nothing at all, just watches me with his strange eyes. I rack my brains. I’ve been a bit out of it these last few days. It’s the morphine. Sometimes people are here, then they’re gone. But it’s people I know. Children, sister, parents, friends.
Maybe he’s a doctor or a nurse, or some student writing a dissertation. But he doesn’t have any of the paraphernalia I would expect. No stethoscope, no clipboard. Not even a pen. Perhaps they’re in his sporron.
I wait for him to introduce himself, but he doesn’t. He does, however, pass me some water. I don’t like hospital water. The plastic cups and plastic jugs seem to taint it. And the drugs have made my mouth rank and rotten. I see it in my children when they kiss me. They hold their breath then pull away quickly. They try not to let me see, but when you’re a mother you know. I’ve told them not to kiss me, but they seem to want to. It’s part of a routine which is lacking these days.
So nothing tastes good. But this water the strange man gives me is cold and refreshing. I drink the whole cup and feel my head clearing.
‘I don’t know you,’ I say. I try to smile, because it sounds a bit snappy. I feel my lips cracking.
‘I’m Hamish,’ he replies.
Hamish. But without a Scottish accent. I search my memory for long-lost relatives or friends of friends but draw a complete blank. He just keeps on staring. Then he sits up straight.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he blurts out. Then he leans in. ‘I have to say that,’ he whispers.
‘What?’ I croak.
He frowns and a vertical line deepens between his brows. He goes to the small mirror which I never use and his fingers move up to it, feeling the groove, trying to smooth it out. He raises his eyebrows, then seems alarmed at the horizontal lines that wrinkle his brow. When his face finally relaxes the lines stay, and he looks much more normal. A normal face for a man in his …twenties? It’s hard to say.
It’s like his face is coming to life before my eyes. I wonder if they’ve put something new in my meds.
He sits back down, legs apart, the kilt lying elegantly across his knees. It suits him. His legs are well muscled and long. I give up on trying to make sense of my visitor. I gesture at the kilt.
‘What tartan is it?’
‘Black Watch,’ he says triumphantly, like he’d expected the question and was ready.
‘It’s smart,’ I concede.
‘Really?’ He is delighted. His face lights up like someone has shone a huge lamp on it. I check the lights but they’re still dimmed. When my eyes return to him he is frowning and wriggling ever so slightly in his chair.
‘Are you going commando?’
There is a long pause, then his face creases into a huge grin. ‘Commando! Yes! Do you want to see?’ He reaches for the hem of the kilt.
‘No!’ I yelp and he freezes. His eyes meet mine and I burst into giggles. It’s so long since I’ve laughed that I have to clutch my stomach. The movement yanks on the drip and the tall steel and plastic tower topples over me.
‘Ow!’ I gasp, because the needle has pulled at my hand. He lurches to steady the drip and I giggle some more.
‘You are laughing, yet you are in pain,’ he comments. His confusion just makes me laugh harder. It’s hurting now. My stomach muscles are wasted and flabby through lack of use. But it feels good. A good ache, for once.
Eventually I subside onto the pillows. He walks around the room, inspecting things, occasionally reaching out a finger to touch, or leaning in to smell. He opens and closes the window a few times and presses his face to the narrow gap, snorts in the air. He sits on the commode, reaching out with his feet to drag himself around. He’s got big black boots on. Like bikers wear. I wonder if he has a dagger down one. There’s a special name for that kind of Scottish dagger, but I can’t remember it.
My box of tissues seems to fascinate him and he’s pulled out a good handful before I can get him to stop.
He fingers the call button, on an extension across my middle and looks at me.
‘Press it,’ he says.
‘No,’ I say. ‘They’re busy. I don’t need anything.’
‘Go on,’ he urges. He leans over me. His eyes are definitely green. Greeny brown. Grey.
‘No,’ I say, firmly.
He presses it, then hurries over to the window. I wait for someone to appear. It’s the little nurse. I think she’s Philippino. I like her because she’s brisk and no nonsense. She always looks so tidy and pretty, her hair tight in a french plait. Not like some of them who look like they’ve slept in their uniforms and could do with a good wash.
‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘How you today?’
I like the way she talks.
‘I’m fine,’ I answer.
‘What you need now?’ she asks, straightening the bed clothes.
She doesn’t seem to have noticed Hamish standing by the window, grinning naughtily at me.
‘I just….I wondered if there were going to be any visitors for me today,’ I say, lamely.
‘I sho you family come later. It only seven a.m. in morning. You OK now? You have some breakfast?’
‘OK,’ I reply meekly. She bustles out and returns with a tray.
‘You want me help you?’
‘No, I can manage.’
And she’s gone. Hamish comes forward and parks himself on the edge of the bed. He starts poking at the food on the tray, lifting stuff up, reading the labels. He studies the picture on the miniature cornflake box for a while, then fills the bowl. He arranges the cornflakes carefully with his fingers, checks the picture again and pours milk in. Then he pokes his fingers into the milk and moves the flakes around a bit more. He seems pleased with the final arrangement. I haul myself up and reach for the bowl. I haven’t eaten properly for ages, but suddenly I’m hungry.
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ I mumble round a mouthful of cornflakes, gesturing at the call button.
‘They’re busy. They’ve got loads of patients to look after.’
‘Yes,’ he replies, spreading marmalade on the toast. ‘And you’re important too.’ He tries to spread butter on top of the marmalade and makes a right mess. Blobs drop on the sheets. But I eat half a slice and it tastes good.
‘Do you want the other half?’ I ask. I’m quite full now.
‘Really?’ he asks, like I’ve offered him a cruise on the Queen Mary. He picks up the toast and puts it to his mouth, takes a tiny bite. His eyes are stretched wide. I remember the first time I gave my daughter chocolate. She was a toddler and her face had looked like his. Like she was saying to me: ‘why have you kept this nectar of the gods from me all this time? This is what I’ve been waiting for.’
It takes him forever to swallow that first tiny mouthful.
‘Wow!’ he says, then gobbles his way through the rest of it.
‘You’re easily pleased,’ I comment.
‘Is that wrong?’ he asks, the frown line deepening between his eyes.
‘No,’ I hasten to reassure him. ‘No, Hamish. Not wrong. Endearing.’
He tears at a sachet of sugar and it explodes all over the place.
‘I don’t take sugar,’ I say, dusting grains from my hair.
‘You do now.’ He empties three sachets into my tea and stirs noisily, sloshing liquid into the saucer.
I drink the tea and the sugar sings on my taste buds. I feel a little stronger.
‘So, Hamish,’ I say. ‘Are you a student?’
He smiles. ‘Yes, a student.’ He stands up and lifts the breakfast tray high over his head. He twirls around the room, the kilt swinging out behind him. ‘I am a student,’ he states. ‘A student. I am learning all the time.’ He spins the tray on one finger and it tips to the floor with a huge crash and smashing of crockery. His eyes meet mine for a second and then he creeps over to the window.
‘What happen?’ the nurse comes in and looks at the devastation.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I say. ‘It just slid off the bed.’ I have to bite my lip to hold back the giggles.
With her eyes she measures the distance from the bed to the pile of smashed crockery and spilled milk. Then she turns to me.
‘I think you feel better Missis Lamb,’ she wags a finger at me. ‘You feel better. I send someone clean up.’
When she’s gone I finally let the giggles come, and Hamish joins in, his laughter booming through the room. His reaction to his own laughter is hysterical in itself. He looks shocked, then clutches his stomach, his chest, his face. It makes me laugh harder until I think I’m going to bring up the breakfast.
He’s really pleased with himself. He goes over to the mirror again and pulls a whole series of faces, touching the lines he creates with his long fingers. When an orderly comes in to clean up he just stays at the mirror. He’s probably only in my head. This thought doesn’t bother me although I do wonder why I would conjure up a clumsy young man in a kilt, who acts like he’s never seen toast before, rather than Johnny Depp or Colin Firth. But I’m quite proud of my invention. I haven’t done anything so creative in ages.
‘What’s in your sporran, Hamish?’ I ask him. I haven’t spoken this much for a while because it makes my throat hurt. But not today. Today I’m sounding more like my old self.
He opens it and roots around.
‘No car keys? Money? Return ticket? Condom?’ I tease. He looks worried.
‘It’s OK,’ I reassure him. ‘I’m sure you don’t need that stuff. So, Hamish. What are you studying?’
This is obviously a much easier question and he gives a breathtaking smile revealing amazing, perfect white teeth. ‘You, of course.’
‘Am I interesting?’
‘Fascinating,’ he replies, his hazel (amber?) eyes glowing. ‘I never thought …..’ he tailed off.
‘Never thought what?’
He hesitates and fiddles with the hem of the kilt. If he suddenly flashed me it wouldn’t scare me. It would probably make me laugh even more.
‘Well, it’s one thing to look, but another thing to be here, to be here with all this!’ He flings his arms out and knocks the jug of water off the bedside cabinet. It’s amazing how much water comes out of it. It seeps across the floor and under the door. He watches it in fascination.
Maybe he’s not a hallucination. Maybe he’s escaped from the psychiatric wing. But he doesn’t seem mad. Just different.
‘Jenny,’ he says tentatively. ‘Can I touch your face?’
‘Yes,’ I reply.
He perches on the bed and leans over me. I hold my breath. He draws his finger down the side of my face, round my chin, over my lips. Under his touch my skin tingles. It’s too much. My body has been decaying, letting me down, rotting under me for months now. I’ve become a ghost in a broken machine. But now I feel my nerve endings coming alive, colour flooding my face. Some long forgotten sentiment is rising within me. It is hope. I push it away but it won’t go. It’s there and I acknowledge it. It’s unclear…..it’s not exactly hope of a recovery. No. Not that. Rather that everything is ….OK.
‘All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,’ I whisper. I don’t recognize the quotation. It just came into my head.
‘She was really ill too,’ he says, stroking my eyebrows. They seem to fascinate him.
‘Julian of Norwich.’
‘Julian’s a man’s name.’
He shrugs. ‘It doesn’t matter. But she’s great.’ He leans forwards, whispers in my ear, so close that it tickles. ‘Not like some of them. Some of them are so …..’ he leans away, mimes a circle round his head.
‘Crazy?’ I ask.
He laughs. ‘Yes. But that’s fine. Holy. I meant holy.’
‘Holy,’ I repeat.
‘Exactly,’ he says. ‘I knew you’d understand.’
I feel that the subject is slipping away from me, but he winks and it doesn’t really matter.
I sleep for a while. It’s a good sleep with no pain staining my dreams. Hamish is there when I wake, standing at the foot of the bed, watching me. He smiles hugely at me.
‘Still here, Hamish?’ I croak.
‘I’m always here,’ he answers, filling a beaker of water for me. ‘Unless you want me to go. But even then, I’m here.’
‘I don’t want you to go,’ I say quickly. I hadn’t realized how lonely I was. A single tear rolls down my cheek and he catches his breath. His own eyes fill up and brim over.
‘Oh!’ he exclaims, rubbing at his cheeks, his eyes, his throat.
‘You’re crying, Hamish,’ I say, smiling through my own tears. He clutches his heart and leans over.
‘I don’t understand,’ he chokes. ‘Happiness and sadness together.’
I pat his shoulder through the huge jumper.
‘Welcome to the world, Hamish,’ I say.
‘Thank you! Thank you! I’m so …..’ He leaps up and spins around, slips in the spilled water and lurches back onto the commode, which flies back across the room into the wall next to the window. The venetian blinds fall down on his head with a swish and a clatter. I laugh and laugh and hiccup and splutter and he joins in. He even drags the commode back across the room to repeat the accident, to make me laugh more.
I sleep again and when I wake my sister is there, with her baby on her lap. I think there’s something wrong with my eyes because their figures are sort of blurred around the edges, especially my sister. I squint and try to focus.
‘God, you look terrible,’ she says.
‘And you’re all blurry,’ I respond.
The baby is staring, round eyed and I follow his gaze. Hamish is standing by the window. The colours of his hair, his kilt are so sharp, his face is shining again and I screw my eyes up. Suddenly the baby bursts into giggles and claps fat hands.
‘He’s a bonkers baby,’ my sister says, kissing him. My brother-in-law comes in, nods in my direction but doesn’t meet my eyes. He takes his son away, the boy twisting in his arms to look at Hamish again.
‘Your husband is allergic to hospitals,’ I observe.
‘It’s hard for him,’ my sister replies, then catches my eye and laughs. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘Pathetic. But I can’t make him stay.’ She fiddles with the bedclothes, tells me news about my children. Josh has won a poetry competition at school. Alex has lost a tooth. They’re at a party now and I’m glad.
‘Make sure they have fun,’ I whisper. ‘Always.’
‘Stop it,’ she growls.
‘Promise me,’ I insist. ‘Promise me that you’ll laugh together.’
‘OK!’ she snaps. ‘So long as you stop being …..you know.’
‘Thank you.’ I reach for her hand and squeeze her fingers. I can’t really feel her now. When I wake up, she’s gone. Everything is grey and fuzzy except for Hamish. He’s shining all over now and he’s taller. Flames are bursting round him, like those pictures of storms on the sun, the ones that affect the magnetic rays and mobile phones. And there’s a noise like fire out of control, a roaring vibration that goes through me.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says. It’s Hamish’s voice, but not.
He’s so beautiful I can’t bear it, but when I reach for him my own hand is shining too.
About the Author: Eddi Goodwin has just finished her first novel and is working on a sequel. She has recently discovered the sheer pleasure of the short story. Eddi writes a blog, The Red Wine Box drawing inspiration from the people around her, particularly from her teenage daughters and other animals. ‘Hamish’ is her first foray into the wide world.
Image: (c) Candace
Image: (c) Candace