Joe woke up with a start to the sound of a day nurse sliding open cheap polyester curtains. He was holding onto his wife’s hand so tightly, like a child terrified to cross the road alone, and was still slumped over in the same plastic chair he was sitting in last night.
The light in the room was gloomy this morning, despite the bright winter weather outside, the air had an eerie dust to it that put Joe on edge. At home he would have opened the window to let the room breathe, but he didn’t want June to get cold. She always felt the cold. He pulled the blanket up higher over her chest and then leaned back to stretch out his back.
Joe knew better than to be falling asleep in a chair, his back would punish him for days now, but at this moment in time he had more important things on his mind. All he wanted was to feel June squeeze his hand again. Come on, June. I need you.
“Sorry for waking you,” interrupted the nurse, as she watched Joe pinch the bridge of his nose as if trying to squeeze away an intense headache. She could tell he hadn’t slept much by the dark panda circles under his eyes, but she thought better than to suggest he go home for some proper rest. “Why don’t you go and find some coffee while I check your wife’s vitals?”.
“Okay,” he replied in a voice more gravelly than he expected. “I think I will. Thank you.”
As Joe plodded slowly down the bright white corridor he couldn’t help but glance into the rooms of other patients. Their rooms all seemed much brighter than June’s and he could see the steam rising from their portable breakfast tables. His stomach grumbled at the smell of warm potato and porridge, though he imagined it would taste much worse than it smelt. Ward 22. Hospitals were so big these days and every ward seemed to be set out like a maze. He got himself lost yesterday on his way back from the toilet, and felt instantly thankful that June’s new private room had one inside it. One less thing for him to worry about. Luckily, the coffee and vending machines were only at the next junction so Joe settled himself on a nearby bench while he decided which terrible powdered coffee to choose from. But Joe found himself distracted, now that he was alone with his thoughts he let the prickle of tears rise behind his eyes for the first time. He just wanted his wife to come back to him, he wasn’t ready to let her go.
An elderly couple wandered through the hall with their elbows closely linked, wearing matching dressing gowns. One of them was hooked up to an IV but he couldn’t tell which and they gave Joe a solemn smile as they passed him.
“Come on, old man,” Joe said out loud to himself, “Pull yourself together.”
He fished out his handkerchief, gave his nose a blow and then pushed himself back up onto his feet, following the wall carefully until he reached the coffee machine. He leaned in closely to read the faded menu and then selected button three for a small instant latte. It wouldn’t be the same as the Waitrose latte he was used to, but nothing felt like it would ever be the same again right now.
As the steaming milk slowly filled his cup, Joe’s mind wandered back to the last time they got coffee together. Him and June. It was last Wednesday, pension day. They were in the Neros above Waterstones, June’s favourite secret location. It always seemed to be unexpectedly quiet for a busy part of town, regardless of the time or day. Perhaps other old folk struggled with the stairs, but not June, she was petite and strong for her age. Her years as a ballet dancer kept her lean, she could float up flights of stairs like a butterfly whilst Joe struggled on behind her. She had such a loud presence for such a quiet person, other men in particular always seemed to glance in her direction as she perused the books, flicking through poetry books with her delicate hands and getting completely lost amongst the pages. It was this combination of coffee and books that won her over every time, particularly the mochas with cream. She would buy a new book each time, reading Joe her favourite lines out-loud between sips of mocha and he would mostly become distracted by the toasted tea cake crumbs stuck to her lipstick. His eyes filled up again, he loved the way her voice sounded when she read poetry and a Robert Frost line played back to him in his head. Nothing gold can stay. Joe’s knees felt weak again at the memory of her voice, as if his heart just became ten times heavier. He carried the flimsy latte cup back to the safety of his bench.
In their courting days, when Joe’s knees were weak due to excitement rather than aged joints, he would take June dancing to her favourite swing club. He loved the way her eyes lit up when the band played her favourite songs. She would grab his hands with the excitement of a child wanting to ride a rollercoaster and he would feel extremely out of his depth in her arms. She was very much a leader, whereas he felt incredibly lucky just to be able to follow her. June hypnotised everyone around her with the way her dress would spin like a Catherine wheel to the music. She had the rare combination of grace and energy, light and dark combined, like delicate sugar dissolving into strong coffee.
He remembered the first time he ever saw her. The way she took his breath away. The way her dark hair showed a little glint of red in the sunshine. He was mesmerised by her movements, by the elegant way she stepped off a double decker bus. You wouldn’t think the simple gesture of stepping off a bus would be so memorable, but this first sighting was etched into Joe’s brain as one of the most beautiful, life changing moments of his life. He remembered the way she brushed her hair away from her lips when laughing with her friends and the way she carried a book close to her chest as if it was a comfort blanket. He recognised that first book cover instantly, one of his all time favourites: The Time Machine, instantly impressed that a young girl like her would enjoy delving into the depths of science fiction. Joe was desperate to approach her but, even without so much as glancing in his direction, she had a way of making him feel instantly inadequate. He had never experienced anything like it, before or since.
Joe took a sip of his latte and winced at the bitter flavour that struck his taste buds. It needed a sachet of sugar, it needed the company of June.
The elderly couple returned from their trip down the corridor, making their way back to their room. This time the woman had her hands full, carrying a fresh orange in one hand and a paper plate in the other, Joe’s stomach rumbled again at the sight. It was the husband who was hooked up to the IV and, without his wife’s arm there for support, he struggled a little more with the walk. As they approached, Joe was surprised to see them head straight towards him, the woman smiling even more sympathetically than before. Joe shuffled nervously in his seat and turned so that his good ear was facing their direction. “Hello dear, we thought you might like something small from the cafe?” Joe was painfully touched at their kindness, he found himself speechless as she placed the plate and orange down next to him on the bench. His eyes started to fill again. “These corridors can be hard to navigate if you’ve not been here long. Here’s hoping your stay is a kind one.” She walked back towards her husband who gave her a humble and understanding nod of pride. Joe still couldn’t find the words he knew they deserved, but a small glance over their shoulder showed them all the gratitude they needed.
Joe let the tears fall. He let all of the strength tumble away and fall around the kind act of two complete strangers. Hospitals are always so full of sadness, complications, pain and suffering, facts that made this kind gesture triple in magnitude. As Joe took a bite into the buttery toast, he felt its warmth spread through him like a glowing ember. For the first time in what felt like a lifetime he felt a little relief, he felt optimism and he felt like he wasn’t quite so alone in this stark, wide, empty hallway.
When he finished his toast and coffee, Joe wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and carefully placed the pieces of rubbish into the recycle bin. Swiping up the orange from the bench on his way past, he headed back to June’s room with a slightly taller stance than before. The ward felt quieter now. The sun had disappeared behind grey clouds and it became clear that morning rounds were over. Nurses were nowhere to be seen. Were hospitals supposed to be this quiet? The closer he got to June’s room, the harder it became to keep his head held high. Visions of her frail, tiny frame reentered his mind and he was overcome with guilt to think how optimistic he felt just moments earlier. As he reached June’s door he took a moment to prepare himself for the weight of reality, he lowered his head on his shoulders and slowly pushed open the door. His orange fell to the floor with a thud.
His wife grinned at the sight of him.
“Oh Joe,” she said through familiar lips.
He ran to her bedside and kissed her hand, “June, I have been so worried!”
She smiled up at him and squeezed his hand, before quoting one of his favourites, “Miles to go before I sleep.”
Poetry had never sounded so sweet.