Two days ago, my students paid me a visit in hospital. It was my fiftieth birthday and I was feeling sorry for myself sitting up in bed, when they came to cheer me up. It was then I decided to tell them the series of unfortunate and embarrassing events that brought me here.
A young woman was sitting next to the neighbouring bed. She looked like an actress from the Forties, but I couldn’t remember which. Her father was half-asleep in bed, and she was reading a book to him with her legs crossed. I couldn’t be sure, but she seemed to be reading a Raymond Chandler novel, and I got totally engrossed by her reading. She had a sensuous, slightly husky voice that seemed to come from her diaphragm and not her head. When I started to recount my tale of mishaps to my pupils, she dropped the book on her lap, closed her eyes, and bowed her head slightly, as though not to miss a single word. I could just see her face through a veil of long black curls.
“Go on then, Sir. What happened?” Asked Jane, a bright and curious redhead, who was one of my best students.
“Well now, it all began five days ago. I was about to shave, and I opened the bathroom cabinet to look for a new blade, when the blade fell to the floor. I picked it up and straightening up I hit my head on the corner of the cabinet. Blood started gushing out everywhere, so I found some disinfectant, poured it on some cotton wool and placed it on my head, which started stinging like mad.
I decided I would sit on the loo and read the paper to calm myself. My head had stopped bleeding, so I decided to throw the cotton wool in the toilet. To calm myself further, I lit a cigarette and threw the match in the toilet. The cotton wool caught fire burning my behind, and I jumped off the toilet seat, but with my pyjamas round my ankles, I lost my balance and fell to the floor hitting my face.”
With the corner of my eye, I noticed I had managed to make the woman visiting my neighbour smile.
“So, you hurt your head, burnt your bum and knocked your nose. Anything else?” Asked Robert, a cheeky sixteen year old, another one of my students, as he pointed to my plaster.
“My back was now out of place, and I couldn’t move. I reached for the phone and called Emergency. The caretaker let them in, and that is how they found me: lying face down in a pool of blood, with my pyjamas round my ankles and my burnt arse sticking up in the air. I could hear the volunteers giggling as they lifted me on a stretcher.”
“Well Sir, you can’t blame them, you can’t have been a pretty sight.” Jane commented amid the general laughter coming from her classmates.
“No, Jane, that I wasn’t.” I admitted.
The woman next to us was straining to keep back laughter. I could see her covering her mouth with her hand.
“Anyway, after the volunteers put me face down on a stretcher without covering my burnt buttocks, we headed for the lift, but the volunteers realised we wouldn’t fit inside it, so we took the stairs. That is, we took the stairs from the SEVENTH floor. Let me tell you boys and girls you have not lived until you have experienced the deep and lasting humiliation of having your neighbours inspect your charred behind on each floor of your building; traumatic doesn’t come near describing it.”
This time the woman burst out laughing and apologised straight after, putting her hand to her mouth.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing.” She said as all the students turned around to look at her.
“Don’t worry. I’m over it now.” I said.
The students turned round back to face me, and Jane winked at me tilting her head in the woman’s direction. She had run a critical eye over the woman and seemed satisfied. In many ways, Jane was the daughter I never had. I cared about her, and I flattered myself that the feeling was mutual.
“Ehm…anyway, the volunteers took the stairs, which were polished marble and they’d just been washed. One of the volunteers slipped, and I went careering down them. I landed in a clumsy trouser-less heap at the feet of my startled caretaker, who was watching everything from below. And that’s how I broke my leg.”
This time the Chandler reading woman broke into uncontrolled laughter.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help it.” Said the woman as she got up and left the ward, her fingers covering her lips.
I followed her with my eyes, and for a second forgot my audience.
By the time my students left, I was keeping back the tears. These boys and girls, these promises of a better future, took the time to visit their teacher on a weekend. Maybe I wasn’t as inept a teacher as I always thought. Or maybe the nurses were giving me some weird medication that had turned me into a sentimental nitwit.
Later, I heard my neighbour being wheeled away while I was being visited, and the curtains had been drawn closed around my bed. After the visit, as the sun was setting, I could see the soft red rays light up the ward through a few open windows, and I could smell Spring. I thought about the woman and wondered who was making her laugh now. I noticed she had forgotten her book on her father’s bedside table, so I reached over and put it on mine.
The next day, I saw her walk into the ward, and wondered if I were dreaming. And then I figured she had come back for her book. She picked up the novel and sat in the empty chair next to my bed.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hi!” She replied.
“How’s your father?” I asked
“He’s fine, thank you. My mother is looking after him now.” She said.
“Good. It was nice of you to read to him. All that Raymond Chandler must have helped.” I said.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” She said smiling.
“Why not?” I asked.
“He’s deaf, that’s why. I wasn’t reading for him I was reading for you.”
“Well, thank you, but why?” I queried.
“I saw you had no visits, and I thought you might enjoy someone reading to you. Was I wrong?”
“No, I looked forward to your visits.”
“So did I. Now, let’s see, where were we?” Said she picking up the novel and crossing her legs.