It was raining when Grace got off the bus outside the hospital gate. She wore a blanket of numbness masking the emotions that were still buried deep inside. During the journey she had stared from the bus window as it rumbled through the winding country lanes and tried to forget the years that had passed since she’d travelled this route as a weekly pilgrimage in all weathers. Today the rain had sheeted against the window, cutting through her painful past. The bus had paused for a passenger to get off at the abattoir, reminding Grace of the noises that had come from within this grisly place in the past. Today, there was only the silence of a Sunday afternoon bringing back thoughts of Grace’s own losses.
Now standing beside the bus under the shelter of the main hospital gate, she paused. The gates were no longer locked although the porter still sat in the little glass-fronted office at the side. The bell-tower still stood watch over the centre of the main building, telling all-comers of the time, the bell now silent but still a memory of the days when it would ring a warning of some poor creature escaping from within the miserable walls.
Grace paused a moment longer, then walked through the gateway, stopping at the open hatch where the porter waited.
‘I’m visiting someone on Camberley Ward,’ she said. ‘Could you direct me, please.’
‘Through the door across the yard, straight down the left-hand corridor,’ he pointed. ‘When you get to the end, you have to go up the stairs. Ring the bell on the door at the top.’
It had all come back to her as the man spoke. How could she ever forget that journey down the corridor of doom? She’d taken it so many times before.
Her footsteps echoed as she walked. She wished she’d not worn the new shoes with the leather soles which clipped as she walked. She wasn’t alone in the corridor. Other visitors headed in the same direction but she felt alone. There was only a flicker of hope which kept her going. Hope that she could make things better again.
Plodding up the stairs as part of a group of visitors helped keep the fear at bay. She stood outside the door with the small group of seemingly lost souls all waiting to pay their respects to their own guilty past secrets.
The door opened and the smell of the ward hit her in the face, forcing the memories of past visits to the forefront of her mind. She swallowed and shuffled through the door behind the others as they began the long walk down the gallery to the ward office. She tried not to look at the faces in the windows of the rooms which stretched all along one side, knowing that Evelyn would be in one of them.
A nurse stood at the office door waiting to greet them.
All of the other visitors seemed to know what to do, nodding to the nurse before continuing on to the open space beyond the office. Grace could see several patients sitting waiting - dressed, she presumed, in their Sunday Best cotton dresses, crisp and not yet faded with age and over-washing.
Grace smiled at the nurse. ‘I’ve come to see Evelyn Chapman. I’m her Mother.’
‘Of course. I’m Sheila. Evelyn’s in her room but if you’d like to sit here I’ll go and get her for you.’ She led Grace to some low chairs set around a coffee table near a tall window in the gallery. ‘I expect you’d like some time alone with her,’ she added.
‘Thank you.’ Grace sat in one of the chairs, nervously glancing out of the window at the rain which was still falling relentlessly from the summer sky. Black clouds scudded across the rooftops of the nearby wards. She wondered if you could see across to the Isle-of-Wight on a clear day. It was a disturbing thought that Evelyn had often looked out on this view. All those years wasted whilst outside life went on through its daily turmoil, leaving her behind in a world which would never return.
Evelyn’s voice brought her back to the present.
Grace stood up. ‘Hello Evelyn.’ She reached to embrace Evelyn with a quick hug.
‘I’ll just leave you to it then,’ the nurse turned to go. ‘I’ll bring you a cup of tea in a while if you like.’
‘Thank you,’ said Grace. ‘That’s very kind.’
‘We don’t usually make tea for visitors. But as it’s your first time, I think it would be best for Evelyn to stay on the ward. The next time you come, you could take Evelyn to the Patient’s Cafeteria - get her off the ward.’ She turned to Evelyn. ‘You’d like that, wouldn’t you Evelyn?’
‘I want to stay here,’ Evelyn said firmly.
‘Yes, of course we will,’ Grace assured her. ‘Don’t worry.’
They sat in silence listening to Sheila’s footsteps echoing in the distance as she stomped off to the kitchen to make tea. Grace tried to find the right words to start a conversation with this daughter who was a stranger to her.
It was Evelyn who finally broke the silence.
‘Karen’s gone,’ she said.
‘Oh, I saw her again,’ Grace said. ‘She came to see me after your visit.’
‘She’s not been here. I miss her.’
‘She’s a nice girl,’ agreed Grace. ‘But you know, she has her own problems. I expect she’s taken some time off for a holiday.’
Evelyn picked at her fingers, looking at the space between her and her mother.
‘How have you been?’ Grace asked.
‘Good.’ Grace wondered what else she could say. ‘Well,’ she continued, ‘We’ve got a lot of years to catch up on. I don’t know where to start really.’
So many thoughts were rushing into her head - things she wanted to say but each one she rejected as being too contentious or somehow inappropriate. ‘How do you make small-talk in such a situation?’ she wondered. The years spent apart stretched between them like an impassable canyon.
It was with a smothered sigh of relief that Grace welcomed Sheila back with the tray of tea. She looked at the nurse gratefully as the tray was placed on the table bridging the distance between herself and Evelyn.
‘I thought this might help,’ said Sheila. ‘It’s never easy the first time.’ She smiled at them both. ‘Oh, I nearly forgot.‘ She turned to Grace. ‘Could you come to the office before you leave? The Charge Nurse would like to have a quick word, if that’s all right.’
‘Of course,’ Grace nodded. ‘I’d like to speak to him anyway.’ She smiled at Evelyn. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’
Evelyn shook her head.
‘Good,’ said Sheila. ‘Right. I must get on.’ She walked away, leaving them alone once more.
‘Evelyn,’ Grace began, ‘I don’t know how you feel about this, but I wanted to talk to the Charge Nurse about you coming to see me at home again. What do you think?’
‘I can’t come on the bus on my own!’
‘You wouldn’t have to come on your own,’ Grace assured her. ‘I’m sure a nurse could bring you and make sure you were alright. I was going to ask but wanted to speak to you about it first.’
‘Not Marion,’ was all that Evelyn said.
‘Marion? Is she a nurse here?’ Grace asked.
‘Yes. I don’t like her. Can I have Karen?’ Evelyn spoke firmly.
‘I don’t know. We could ask but if Karen’s off duty then you could have a different nurse. Karen can’t be here all the time can she? What about that nice nurse who made the tea? Sheila.’ Grace looked at Evelyn expectantly.
‘Good.’ Grace breathed a sigh of relief. ‘I’ll talk to the Charge Nurse then.’