Officer Resurgat

If you're coming to this fresh, read Officer Down first, or it won't make sense. And then go on to An Officer and some Gentlemen. That's if you'd like to, of course, we won't insist. . .

It was the Sunday that I saw Nick again. I don’t like the Lufton – too big, too impersonal, and my dislike is nothing compared to the loathing that Phil, who has spent a lot more time there, will express at the drop of a hat – but at least the parking is better than the hospital in Malpersham. The general wards have no fixed visiting hours at the weekend, so we thought we’d go in in the morning, spend some time with Nick, have a wander round the shops in town and a bite to eat, then come back briefly in the afternoon. Little and often was my plan as far as visiting was concerned. We arrived about 11ish amongst a great deal of bustle – apparently the shifts were changing over, and as it’s all agency nurses at the weekend, this involved a fair bit of explanation, enough so that no-one really paid us any attention as we slipped in.

Fran was at Nick’s bedside, looking wrung out.

Hansie kissed her, then laid a hand over Nick’s.

“Hansie?” Quite apart from the livid bruises, Nick looked as bad as her. Gaunt. I mean, he’s always been skinny but you could see the skull through the skin. The stress was telling on both of them.

Ja, boet. And Tim is with me.”

“Good. Will you tell this stubborn woman that I’m not going to have a fit of the vapours if she pops home for the afternoon.”

“Nick. . .” said Fran. It didn’t sound like warning. More like reproach if anything. That wasn’t like what I knew of her, either.

“Fran,” said Hansie solemnly. “Nick says that you are a stubborn woman and that. . .”

“I heard. We’ve been over this, Nick, I’m not leaving you. How could I spend an afternoon with Marianne when I was worrying about you all the time?”

“Because you need a break. Marianne is one of your oldest friends, she’s only here for the weekend, and you won’t see her at all if you don’t go. We’ll both be better for you having a breather.”

Something crossed Fran’s face – a flash of hurt, I rather thought – followed by a reluctant acknowledgement. She knew it was true, evidently.

“Go, Fran,” said Hansie. “We will stay with him.”

“See?” said Nick, grabbing this unexpected advantage. “Tim and Hansie will be here.”

“Well. . .”

“We’ll call if there’s anything you ought to know, Fran, I promise,” I said. Bang went the little and often plan. Still, if it was what they needed, then it was what we’d do.

You’d be amazed how quickly you can run out of topics of conversation when visiting someone that you don’t know that well. Luckily, Hansie seemed to have no trouble thinking of things to say, and I was able to chip in from time to time. About noon a nurse turned up to give Nick some medication. I was sitting in the chair, Hansie was sitting on his bed, holding his hand. I don’t know why, but I’d noticed it was a habit he seemed to have fallen into. Saying ‘I am here’, I guess.

This nurse was small, bubbly, and quite young. She whisked the curtains around the bed. “Excuse me,” she said to me. “Would you mind just stepping out for a moment while I give Mr Maitland his injection?” Hansie rose at the same time, unpeeling his fingers from Nick’s, only for her to say: “No, that’s all right, your partner can stay if you want.”

Hansie went crimson, and opened his mouth to deny everything, but Nick grabbed his hand before it escaped entirely and said, with a deadpan flash of his old self:

“Yes, darling, don’t go.”

By the time the nurse slipped out again with a bright meaningless smile and drew back the curtains saying: ‘there, you can sit back down again now’, I had managed to stop my shoulders shaking.

“Well, love birds, everything all right?” I said cheerfully. Hansie shot me a dark look that promised dire retribution later, before turning to Nick.

“You bastard,” he said with some feeling.

“Hansie, I thought you cared.”

Here God, Nick, what did you do that for? She did not need to think that you. . . that we. . .”

“She meant well. I thought you’d approve that they’re so considerate of gay relationships.”

“Can I point out that you are not, in fact, gay, hey?”

“Well, it won’t kill me if she thinks I am, and it was a well meant, if misplaced, impulse on her part. If I’d denied it, she would have died of embarrassment. Or are you ashamed of me?”

Hansie shook his head, grinning, then abruptly sobered, realising that Nick could not see it.

“Only of your terrible jokes, boet,” he said. “But you are obviously feeling more yourself today.”

“I feel – I don’t know how I feel. No, I do. Frightened.” said Nick with painful honesty. “And sore, unhappy, light headed. Take your pick. Joking helps a bit, that’s all. Tell me – does Fran look very bad?”

“She looks tired,” I said carefully. “A bit drawn. Mind you, so do you.”

It wasn’t until lunch was served that I saw why. A tray containing a plate of indifferent spaghetti bolognese and a bowl of apple pie with custard was briskly left by an orderly, who didn’t stop. No special implements. No help. Nick felt cautiously around the tray, found a fork and felt for the edge of the plate, pushed the spaghetti around it. Half of it fell off onto the tray. He put the fork back down.

“Nick, do you want me to help you?” said Hansie softly. I think he sensed how demeaning it was for a man as fastidious and proud as Nick not to be able to feed himself.

“I – no, don’t bother, Hansie. I’m not really hungry. The pain killers make me a bit nauseous.”

“Nick – when did you last eat?” It came out a bit sharper than I intended. A bit – well, Toppish. Nick heard it too, I think, because his head swung round with a slightly startled expression.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t – it’s a bit of a blur.”

“Not since you came here, at any rate.”

“Once,” he admitted. “When Fran was here, to help.” No wonder he looked so gaunt. And the ward, understaffed as it was and with only agency nurses at the weekends, who didn’t know the patients, would never notice.

I took a cautious spoonful of the spaghetti which contrived to be soggy and slimy at the same time. Someone had put that powdered parmesan on the top that smells like sick. It was vile.

“Hansie, can you hold the fort for an hour?”

“Why, where are you going?” Suspicious.

“To sort out something we need. Please, love.”

Ja. OK, then.” Bless him.

Luckily I didn’t need to go through the town centre, and the Sunday traffic elsewhere was light, because I hammered the accelerator. And got back to the hospital in not very much more than the promised hour.

“Where have you been?” asked Hansie, accusingly.

“Home. And then to Phil’s.”


“Here, Nick,” I said, ignoring him. “This is a thermos of turkey and ham soup. It’s not too thick, you should be able to drink it from the cup.”

“Tim, this is. . .”

“I also have some of Phil’s curry puffs, and some lemony vol-au-vent things in case you want something sweet. I dropped by their place and raided one of his freezers. I zapped them in the microwave and they should have defrosted fully in the time it took to get here.”

“Oh. Actually, that sounds quite good.” Nick’s stomach made a small gurgle of agreement as the smell of the soup hit him. I may not be quite the cook that Phil is, but I can make a damned good soup if I say so myself. Nick sat up cautiously in bed, propped up on pillows, and cupped his hands around the mug of soup, and finished it with growing enthusiasm in a very short space of time.

“More? Or one of the curry things?”

“I think I’d like some more soup, please, then a curry whatsit. But won’t the nurses object?”

“I doubt it. People bring grapes and chocolates, this is no different. And besides, that little nurse agreed with me that the food here is disgusting. She and the others are just finishing off the rest of the lemony things.”

By the time he was sated Nick had had two mugs of soup, three curry puffs and two lemon vol-au-vents. Not as much as I would have liked, but obviously the most he’d eaten for a while, and he looked better for it, a little more colour in his face. Fran remarked on it when she turned up about 6:30. I offered her the last of the curry puffs.

“What is it?”

“A little home cooking. Phil’s, not mine. The food here is pretty dreadful, Fran, I thought we could do better.”

“Ah.” She obviously heard the bit I hadn’t said about Nick not eating, added, very softly: “I should have noticed that.”

Quite frankly, I’m surprised she could notice anything, and it just showed how tired she really was that she had missed it, even given that they don't allow visiting at mealtimes during the week. She looked marginally better for having had a break – and confessed in passing to having enjoyed the afternoon more than she had expected – but if ever I saw someone living on their nerves I saw it there. I should know – there was more than a little resemblance to the hollow eyed figure that used to stare at me out of the mirror at the height of my folly in trying to do a full-time job, a full-time relationship, and still spend hours a day on the MBA. But of course, she would be still trying to keep the essential bits of her business going in the grudged moments when she wasn’t here. Yes, I thought I recognised the symptoms all too well.

I didn’t say that, of course. It wasn’t my place, and it wouldn’t have helped. Still, I wondered how much longer she could manage under this sort of stress. No, I just said: “Go on, try it. Tomorrow I’ll see what else I can find in Phil’s treasure trove.”

“But what will Phil say?” asked a bemused Hansie much later that night, as we prepared for bed.

“If he were here he’d say: take whatever you need,” I said briskly. “And if he does mind, then I’ll just have to apologise. But I hope he doesn’t: I plan to repeat the exercise. Nick needs food he can pick up with his hands and eat without too much mess. And soup and some other things I can manage but I don’t have the same skill at baking Phil does. He’s got a whole freezer full of that sort of fiddly-fie.”

There was a noticeable cooling in temperature. “You are not saying that Fran cannot feed him, now you have pointed out the problem?”

“Hansie – even you wouldn’t claim that Fran is any great shakes as a cook. She wouldn’t claim it for herself – in fact, I’ve heard her expressly deny it.”

His expression was now definitely a scowl. “She would do anything for him, Tim. She is. . .”

“What she is, is a woman close to the end of her rope, Hansie. And why shouldn’t we help? If we can provide something worth eating, something that will tempt his appetite, with no great effort on our part, where it would just be an added burden on Fran, what earthly reason would we have for standing back?”

“I suppose so.” Grudgingly.

And that was what we did, the next two or three evenings. The nurses started to sit up and salivate when one or the other of us arrived, because I made a point of sharing it round to keep them sweet. I really hoped that Phil wasn’t saving any of this for some special occasion. Otherwise he was going to kill me.

“Tim, Fran is here,” said Hansie’s voice on the phone.

“Here at Hamilton’s? Why?”

“She says she needs to speak to us. Both of us,” he said shakily. “Damien is just bringing her up.”

Naturally a whole set of horrible thoughts went through my mind, starting with ‘oh my God he’s blind for life’ and degenerating rapidly from there. Fran would hardly have come over just to tell us he was doing ok.

I dashed out of the Quality Control office I’m currently ensconced in and took the back stairs to Marketing three at a time.

Hansie shot me a worried look as I burst into his office. I expect I looked just the same, only more breathless. “Tim, do you think he. . .”

“I don’t know. I don’t know, Hansie. Did he – he was all right yesterday, when you went in after work?” It was a silly question really, he’d said to me when he got in on Wednesday evening that Nick had been ok, a bit headachy and under the weather, but that he, Hansie, had bullied him into eating some little cheese and ham pastries and an apple, and that Fran had reported that he had eaten some fish fingers at lunchtime.

Ja, of course, I would have... Fran!” for Fran had just walked in. “What is wrong?”

“I couldn’t get hold of you,” she said in a small voice. “I think I have the numbers all down wrong. I couldn’t think of any other way to get you.” We stared at her, white faced.

“What has happened? What is wrong?” Hansie asked again.

“Nothing. He can see. He can see again, Hansie. He says it’s a bit blurred, as if the focus had gone wonky, but he can see.”

Goddank!” exclaimed Hansie fervently. “Fran, this is marvellous news!”

She smiled, desperately, started to say “Yes,” but somewhere in the middle of the word it became a sort of sob, the sound of a hunted, harried thing at the utter end of its strength. Her legs just sort of folded under her and she went down.

And by God but Hansie is still fast for a big man. He had her before she had got more than half way down, helped her into the chair.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I hate women who cry,” she mumbled, but the tears wouldn’t stop coursing down her cheeks nonetheless. Hansie hates women who cry too, and looked too panicked at the spectacle of one of his rocks crumbling to come up with any sensible response, other, perhaps, than the one he was giving of putting his large and capable arms around her.

And me – well, I suddenly saw a person rather than a Top. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always quite liked Fran, and I would be grateful to her for what she has done – does – for Hansie even if I didn’t, but she always seemed too strong for my likes or dislikes to have any relevance. And to be honest I found her a bit scary. In a way, it was a bit of a relief to realise that Fran Milton was as weak and fallible as any of us.

“Don’t be silly, Fran, you have nothing to apologise for. You’ve just hit a wall, that’s all.”

“It’s so-o silly,” she sobbed. “I should be happy.”

“Look, it’s like leaning against the wind. When it stops suddenly, you fall over. You’ve been worrying yourself sick for days, and trying to run your business as well as be with Nick – it’s no wonder you can’t go on like that.”

“I suppose.” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and Hansie wordlessly passed her a paper handkerchief.

“Definitely. You’ve been strong for as long as you needed to be, and that’s what counts. Now you need to let yourself lean on someone else a little.”

She looked at me. “Piet is rubbing off on you,” she said ruefully. “When did you start to become wise?”

“Believe me, this particular lesson was beaten into me.”

“I – you’re right. As soon as he’s completely better I’ll have a proper rest. . .” and her face screwed up and she started to sob again.

I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Fran, sweetheart, you aren’t going to last that long. You need a break now.”

“But Nick. . .”

“No Fran. Hansie will go and stay with Nick. You need to go to bed.”

“Tim, I know you mean well, but I’ll grab a sandwich and go back and I’ll be fine.”

Over my dead body. “Fran. Listen to yourself. You’re hardly even fit to walk never mind drive back to the hospital and spend hours with Nick.”

“I. . .”

“Don’t interrupt. Do you think that it will help Nick for you to turn up in this sort of state? Remember, he can see how wrung out you are now. You have to let go for a bit. You have to accept that Nick is warm and safe and his sight has come back and the thing he needs, the thing he absolutely needs from you is for you to be well and rested and there for him when he comes home. Or do you expect him to look after you as well when they let him out of hospital?”

She looked up as if she had been slapped. Yes, I know it was unfair. But I wasn’t about to lose this one.

“Tim. . .” Hansie shifted uncomfortably. “Perhaps if Fran feels she can. . .”

Fuck you, Hansie, don’t undo all my good work. You’re supposed to be on my side.

“No, Hansie.” He blinked at the tone. Even when I’m topping him I rarely use that tone. I wouldn’t dare, normally, but I was a bit – riled. “Fran is not thinking straight, and neither are you. She has to rest.”

“But. . .” protested Hansie weakly, and “I. . . no, perhaps Tim is right,” agreed Fran.

“I am. Now Hansie can go and stay with Nick this afternoon, and this evening as well if Nick wants. I will drive you home, make you something hot to eat while you have a long hot bath, and then you will go to bed – without setting your alarm, please – and not get up until tomorrow. Everything is going to be all right, Fran.”

She smiled weakly. “Promise?”


“What about work?” objected Hansie.

“Some things are more important than work. I’ll go and tell Jim what’s happening, and then we’re going.”

“You are going to top Jim as well as Fran and me, hey?”

“Only if necessary, Hansie.”

They looked at one another.

“Entirely too much time in Piet’s company,” murmured Fran.

“Fersure,” agreed Hansie, fervently. “Fersure.”

Ja, well, I went home and changed out of my suit and then I went back to the hospital and if you had asked me what I was thinking I could not have told you. I was so pleased that Nick was better; I was also very shaken at the way Fran had looked. I mean, Fran? Breaking down? I would almost have been less surprised if it had been Piet. But Tim was right, she had simply managed on her own for too long. So, it is as Piet says: if you make a mistake and learn from it, it is valuable. I would learn, and perhaps be less concerned about forging a relationship with Nick and more about maintaining one with Fran. And meanwhile, Tim was looking after Fran and I was looking after Nick and that was a fair division.

He turned his head when I approached, and it gave me quite a shock. Even in the few days he had been in hospital, I had become accustomed to having to speak to him when I neared his bed, because he could not see me and on this ward, things were noisy. He still looked desperately weary: some of that was the bruises which he would have, I thought, for a good while yet, and some was that we know Nick does not sleep well, and perhaps even with the drugs, he was not resting easily. But it was a joy to see him turn his head and look at me, and smile at me before I spoke.

Ach, then I see it is true. You can really see me?”

“With your hair? Couldn’t miss it. Everything tends to slide out of focus every so often, and it’s all a bit bright, but yes, you’re definitely there. I wasn’t expecting you this afternoon, though, was I? I thought you said you were coming tonight?”

I made a face; I had been some time in the car trying to work out the best way to tell him what was going on without worrying him about Fran.

“Fran came to me at work to tell me the news, and Tim was there too, and we both thought that she was looking overtired, so you will have to put up with me this afternoon. Tim is taking her home, and he will see that she eats a proper meal and has a rest.”

He nodded. “I’m glad somebody’s persuaded her to take some time for herself. I did tell her she needn’t come for every visiting time, but she insisted and I’m not exactly in a good way to argue about it. But honestly, it won’t kill me to go unvisited once or twice: should you not be at work? I mean, I’m glad you’re here, but I don’t want you getting into trouble.”

“Well,” I was not above embroidering a little, “you see, Fran was not inclined to give way to us, so we called up the big guns. James Hamilton backed us up that she should go home, and Tim would go with her and I would come here, so we have permission at the highest level.”

We were interrupted by a nurse bustling up beside the bed. “Mr Maitland, I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to get to you today after all. We’ve had three more admissions, we’ve a nurse off sick and they’ve pulled one of ours to go to another ward as well, and I just can’t be spared. I’ve put you on the board for the shift change, so maybe somebody could get to you this evening, or I’ll try again tomorrow, but this afternoon is absolutely a non-starter, sorry.” She smiled at him apologetically and shot off again, and Nick gave a huff of exasperation.

“And that was what?”

“That was my chance of a bath. Honestly, Hansie, the staffing here is a disgrace. There hasn’t been a day since I got here that they’ve had the full complement of nurses. They haven’t got a male nurse on the ward today at all, and while I don’t mind much, some of the men, specially the very old ones or the very young ones, do. They won’t let me have a shower in case I faint and knock myself out again, which is fair enough, I suppose. They keep promising I can have a bath provided the nurse goes with me, in case I pass out and drown, only there’s never a spare nurse. Fran said she would go, and they won’t let her, they say she’s not big enough and she’d not be able to get my dead weight out of the bath. Like that nurse could? She’s half Fran’s size, although I suppose she’s had the training. It’s maybe an insurance thing. But quite frankly, Hansie, I’m beginning to feel a bit over-ripe. I get a basin and a flannel, and Fran’s keeping me supplied with wet wipes, so I’ve been over all the important bits, but I want a bloody bath. And I’m desperate to wash my hair, it hasn’t been done since – well, since it all happened, other than a dab with a cloth, and I don’t want to think what it’s like. My scalp itches something chronic.” He sighed. “Never mind. Maybe after the shift change.”

Ja, I have heard that about the staffing before,” I agreed. “Phil has landed in here a time or two after rough matches – you remember when he was concussed? They kept him a day and a half, and he hated it. Impersonal and badly funded, he says. But if it is so bad. . .” I hesitated. There was an obvious solution. “You think they would let me go with you? They surely could not think that I could not hold you up if you fainted? Although as you say, it might be the insurance.” I wished to give him a loophole if he simply did not like the idea, if it would be an intimacy too far, but he was sitting upright and waving to get the nurse’s attention.

“Look, my friend says he’ll go with me, and look at him, he won’t let me drown. So that would be all right, wouldn’t it?”

The nurse looked at me and I tried to appear large and reliable. “I am a registered first-aider at work, mevrou, and I have done the Health and Safety course on safe lifting. I am sure he would be quite safe with me.” Nick, I think was holding his breath. The nurse looked worried.

“I’ll ask, O.K.?” She scurried off and came back with another woman, older and with an expression of extreme harassment. She looked me up and down. “I don’t see why not, if you’re willing. He doesn’t actually need lifting or anything, just somebody to be there. You’ll have to stay in the room with him, you understand that?”

“We go to the same gym,” put in Nick. “He’s seen me in the buff before.”

“Well, you can go in a wheelchair. No!” this as Nick opened his mouth to argue. “I’m sure you could walk that far. I’m just not convinced you could walk back again afterwards. I’ll get you a chair.”

She bustled away, and Nick leaned out of bed. I hastened to put a hand out; his vision might have returned but I thought it likely his balance would be off. I was not at all sorry that he would travel in a wheelchair. “You have a wash bag?”

“In that cupboard with the towel. And clean pyjamas too, please, underneath.”

The nurse came with us to the bathroom, and Nick sat quietly in the chair and made no trouble – until we got to the door.

“Look, if it’s all the same to everybody, I would really like to pee without an audience? For the first time in ten days? I can stand up that long, honestly.”

She sniffed, not unsympathetically. “Don’t lock the door, and if I call you, answer me. We’ll wait.” We backed up against the door, and I ventured, “He seems much better.”

She nodded. “It’ll do him good to get his bath; I’m only sorry we couldn’t manage it for him before now.”

“I wish I had known. I have been here most days, I would have helped him.”

“I think he probably wouldn’t have let you. I mean, to be naked and unable to see in front of somebody who could see you? One thing to be helped by a nurse, it’s my job, or maybe his partner who’s seen it all before, but anybody else? I don’t think I would like it, in his place.”

“No,” I agreed, thoughtfully. “No, nor would I. I would feel – ” I searched for the word. “Defenceless, I think? Threatened?”

Nick opened the door then, and we went in. “Right,” said the nurse, all business. “Don’t under any circumstances leave him. In an emergency, pull the red cord and the cavalry will arrive and break down the door. There’s plenty of hot water, but the pressure on this floor is rubbish, so it will take forever to fill the bath. There are loads of spare towels in here – in fact. . .” she opened the cupboard and hauled out a large and spotless if rather threadbare towel. “Fold this down the back of the bath for him to lean on, it’ll be easier on his back. When you’re done, put all the wet towels in this bin. If I were you, I wouldn’t try to stay too long; I think you’ll find that you’ll be very tired afterwards. All right?”

We nodded obediently, and she smiled at us. “There now, enjoy it. It’ll do you good. If you’re not back by the shift change, I’ll tell them you’ve made a bid for freedom down the laundry chute.” She sped off, and I slipped the lock behind her; Nick was already turning on taps.

“She’s right, the water pressure’s crap,” he observed; his ears were a little pink, and I thought he was perhaps rather embarrassed now that we came to the point. Brisk and businesslike, that was the way to approach it. “So do you wish to shave while it fills?”

“Damn right I do,” he responded fervently, looking round him. “Where did you put my bag?”

I picked it up from the windowsill. “Sit down in the wheelchair, boet. The nurse was right, you may suddenly find yourself tired. Your razor is in here?”

It was a rechargeable one; with ten days’ growth to account for I thought he would have done better with a blade. He agreed.

“I wet shave at home, but I have this for the office or for when I’m called away. To tell the truth, my face has hurt so much I didn’t dare risk even asking somebody to help me until today.”

Ja, your jaw is hardly more than yellow now, but the black eye is still impressive. You do not look quite so likely to frighten the horses, as Jim would say. Now, there is – actually it is shower gel, in here. You want some of it in your bath water or do you not care for that?”

“I want every available sybaritic luxury, even if it’s only supermarket shower gel.”

“No, it is not that. It is the one that matches your aftershave; you have expensive tastes, boet.”

“Oh, Fran, you darling! I never buy that, it’s criminally expensive. I don’t mind paying for the aftershave but I never buy the other stuff. Fran brought the soap last week to make me feel better; I didn’t realise she had bought that too. Yes, let’s be having it, Hansie. I’m afraid you’re right, I have expensive tastes. I can’t really justify it, it’s a waste of money, but what the hell.”

“I am telling you, you have not seen ‘expensive tastes’ until you have been in a clothes shop with Phil. I think you may justify a treat for yourself. Come now, can you get in by yourself or do you want my arm?”

He could manage, and I turned aside and rearranged towels to let him do so unobserved. Then I sat in the wheelchair (which was not at all comfortable), and fixed my gaze firmly on his face.

“Is that better?”

“It’s heaven. You have no idea.”

He simply lay for about ten minutes and we talked lazily of nothing in particular; then he rather unwillingly sat up and reached for the soap. “I suppose I’d better not stay for hours.”

Ja wel, it occurs to me that if we play nicely and have you back in bed before your curfew, they will be more likely to let us do this again tomorrow.”

“Good thought,” he agreed and washed himself briskly. “Is there any shampoo in that bag?”

There was, but I could see a problem. “Are you supposed to keep your stitches dry?”

His eyebrows went up. “I don’t actually know. Hell, I suppose I’m probably not meant to soak them. Bugger! I really want. . . Stuff it. I’ll work round them. I have got to wash my hair. It feels as if it’s stiff with blood still.” He made a face, and my stomach turned a little. I had not thought before about that; I had merely been thinking that I would not like to leave my own hair unwashed for ten days. There was a shower affair on the end of the bath, one of those things like an old fashioned telephone; Nick set it running, and started to feel cautiously around the cut on his head. I came and knelt beside him, rolling up my sleeves.

“I think you had better let me do that, boet,” I said, hoping he would not hear the unsteadiness in my voice. He surrendered the thing and I ran the water on his hair, concentrating hard on not thinking about what was there. I felt him start under my hands. “Sorry, am I hurting you?”

He sounded embarrassed. “No, I was just thinking. . . is it very bloody? I shouldn’t really. . . I never thought, are you squeamish? You don’t have to. . .”

I snorted at him: that was the least of my problems. “Nick, I was a rugby player. You cannot play high level rugby and worry about the sight of blood.” That at least was true, although blood in a man’s hair was another. . . I would not, I would not think that way. But his embarrassment deepened, and he mumbled into his chest, “I. . . um. . . I was blood tested not that long ago. Risk of the job, exposure to. . . to various viruses and so on. Accidents. Blood. Needles. Came back clean and I don’t think. . . is it very bloody?”

Look, just shut up about it? I could manage O.K. if he did not go on about it. “No, it is not.”


And I actually looked. I looked at what I could see, not what I thought I might see, not what I was afraid of seeing. I could not wholly disguise the surprise in my voice. “It is thick with something but it is not blood. We are not thinking clearly about this, Nick. They would have cleaned it before they put the stitches in, and after that, it has oozed a little, I think, but nothing worse. There has been a dressing over it and the gum or whatever from that has stuck to your hair, and there is something else. . . did they put something on your head when they did the scan? It is like thick gel.”

“I don’t know, I can’t remember the scan, but they dressed the wound with some sort of antiseptic stuff a couple of times, it’s maybe that?”

Ja, maybe. We will have it out. Tell me if I hurt you. You will need a haircut, it is coming back all uneven round the wound.”

“It’s not growing in white, is it?”

Nee, I do not think so, but it sticks in all directions. There, that is cleaner, if not precisely clean. Now, pull the plug out and sit still, and we will rinse you off with the shower and be rid of all the history of this.”

He was able to get out unaided, and to dry and dress himself and clean his teeth while I rinsed out the bath and disposed of the towels, but he dropped back into the wheelchair with a sigh.

“Dammit, half an hour in the bath and I’m shattered.”

Ach, that is nothing. You know that if you have even a couple of days in bed with a virus, you get up and you are instantly exhausted. That will pass as you can do more. But that is plenty for today, ja nee? Back to bed, and I have brought the newspaper, and we will see what is happening in the world, or if you wish, we can try the puzzle page. I warn you, my English is not up to a cryptic crossword, I can only do the general knowledge one.”

So it was done. I will not say ‘so easily’, because it was not easy. But looking back on it now, if Nick got his sight back, maybe I also saw something that I had not seen clearly before. My father taught me that being strong was a man's virtue, and that it left no place for compassion. That the strong can afford to care I had learned since from other and better men, but I think that I had not realised that strength can come from the act of caring itself. That if you think of others, not yourself, it is sometimes possible to face down your demons after all, even if you are only pretending for the sake of those others to be strong.


Idris the Dragon

Click on Idris the Dragon to go back

All material © , 2007