‘Thank you.’ He pauses as if this is not all he wishes to say. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘Eileen,’ says the nurse, her voice young and strong. ‘And you’re Robert. Am I right?’
The man smiles, ‘Yes, that’s it. But please call me Robbie.’ He stumbles a little over the rough ground.
‘Sorry, Robbie. I ought to be more careful. I don’t want you tumbling down the slope.’
Robbie smiles again, but a little more uncertainly. The bandages over his eyes obstructing his vision. This is awkward for him, but he says, ‘I don’t want to be back in bed with a broken leg as well, do I?’ And forces a jolly laugh. ‘I’ll be here for ever at this rate. These bandages will be gone but I’ll have my leg strapped up.’
Eileen laughs, too, but he can’t see if she means it.
She guides him down the steps of the slope, ‘It’s slippery on the grass – the steps are better.’
He hears voices of other men. Laughter. Taut whispers.
‘Would you like to walk around the gardens, or sit here on the bank?’ she asks. ‘The sun’s out.’ He feels her bend suddenly, pulling gently at his arm.
‘What are you doing?’ This unannounced movement unnerves him, but he tries to keep it out of his voice. Eileen straightens.
‘Just feeling if it’s dry. And it is.’
Robbie allows himself a smile, ‘Well, in that case, I’ll have to sit here on the grass, won’t I? Will you join me?’
He hears her laugh a little, and she guides him to the ground. Stretching out his legs, he breathes the fresh air - his first in he doesn’t know how long.
‘Is-is it a large garden, Eileen?’ he falters a little at the intimacy of her first name.
‘Well, there are some beautiful trees. To your left there’s a huge one, bent over, it’s almost like an arch.’
He nods. ‘I can hear it. The leaves, I mean. Like the sea.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
They sit silently for a moment, then Eileen says, ‘Robbie.’
He turns his face towards her.
‘I’m sorry, but I have to go back.’
A moment of panic twists in his stomach. ‘Of course,’ he whispers.
‘I’ll be back very soon, but Sister will be awfully angry with me if I stay out too long.’ Her voice sounds bright, but he knows she isn’t smiling. Reaching out with his left hand, he feels for hers, it’s warm and reassuringly soft - surprising. ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll be perfectly all right.’
‘I know,’ she says, her voice low. ‘I’ll only be twenty minutes or so. Is there anything you want me to bring out?’
‘A cold drink, lemonade, perhaps. If you have it.’ Then regrets this, it shows his age, a mere nineteen, and he’s certain she is much older.
‘Of course,’ she says, ‘and you’re quite sure…’
‘Don’t worry about me, Eileen. Thank you. I’ve been through much worse than this.’ Much worse.
‘Well, then,’ she says, and he hears the rustle of her starched skirts as she stands, the brief touch of her hand on his shoulder. ‘Right. Back to work.’
The grass shushes as she walks up the slope to the hospital.
So, Robbie, this is it. Alone and blind. At least till the bandages come off. That’s what keeps him going, the thought of light and colour again, this garden. The memory of his injury has been wiped away – he knows only that he woke up in a ship on the way to Blighty, sea-sick and blind. The memories after that are a blur of voices and unsettling movement until he arrived here – at this hospital with its large garden. Or so he’s been told.
He breathes the air, and is shocked by its purity. No cordite, smoke or blood. Just flowers, and, of course, cigarette smoke - there are at least two men close by, their voices cheery.
Instinctively he reaches for his own packet, and pulls them out of his pocket along with the matches. Takes one out, then stops. How will he light it? He can’t see the flame or the end of the cigarette - it’s hopeless. The men nearby might have a light, but they’re talking and suddenly, out here in the darkness without Eileen, he can’t imagine conversing with anyone. He pushes the packet back into his pocket.
A blackbird is singing somewhere to his right. It sounds high up; he imagines it perched on the top branch of a tree, the notes spilling like liquid to the ground. Just like his mother’s garden in Somerset. One particular blackbird always sings from the post on the front gate. His mother. She was going to come as soon as she’d heard. Her letter had been read to him, but he’d dictated one back saying to wait. The bandages must be off first. He wants to see his visitors properly; he doesn’t want their handholding and sympathy.
The throbbing in his head that has been there since he woke is increasing, but he can’t go back inside. Not just yet. The wards frighten him. Of course, in the day time it isn’t too bad – bearable at least, but the nights. He pulls at the blades of grass beside him, ripping them from the earth. The only sights left to him now are of Belgium. June at Messines Ridge, near Ypres – ‘Wipers’ to the Tommies, to him. Behind these bandages the scenes replay themselves endlessly and there is nothing he can do to stop them. He wills himself to hear the blackbird again, the leaves whispering on the tree, but all he can hear is the crump of shells and the piercing whistle of bullets. A black panic overtakes him - he can’t breathe. His hands fly up to the bandages. They have to come off - he needs to see. See the sky and the garden and the people around him. Know it’s safe. The unknown, unknowable space forces itself in – threatening to crush him. It’s all he can do to stop himself crying out. Bringing his knees up, he clasps them to his chest and begins rocking, trying to steady his breathing.
‘You all right, son?’ An older man.
Robbie nods, and tries to unclench his fingers. There’s a crack, the man’s knee as he crouches down, and a grunt of pain. Robbie smells the cigarette smoke on the man’s clothes.
‘D’you want me to fetch a nurse?’ says the man, his breath warm in Robbie’s face. Robbie shakes his head quickly, the pain intensifying.
‘It’s just,’ he hears the crack in his own voice, ‘just these bandages. Difficult. Once they’re off it’ll be perfectly all right. It’s awkward.’
The hand squeezes his shoulder, ‘Aye, I know, son. You just stay put, and I’ll fetch a nurse.’
Robbie hears the man straightening up, a sharp intake of breath. Pain somewhere. He bites his lip to stop himself clutching hold of the man, grabbing him, begging not to be left alone. The low voice so like his father’s. The garden is vast and he cannot conceive of its edges. He swallows. ‘A nurse. I-I think it would be best. Too much fresh air, you know…’ he trails off, then hears the man’s uneven tread as he moves up the bank.
Alone again, Robbie’s mind fills with the black dancing figures of his friends as they leap up from their graves.
The blackbird. Listen to the blackbird. It’s still there, its sweet notes cascading. Listen to the tree, the breeze playing lightly through the leaves making them dance, swish like waves. He can see it but it’s an effort to hold the images in place, keep them pressed up against the walls of his mind. Forcing the nightmarish visions back where he can no longer relive them. Sweat breaks out at his hairline with the effort.
‘Robbie,’ a voice made sharp with urgency. ‘Robbie, I’m terribly sorry.’
‘Sister wouldn’t let me come. But I sneaked out without her seeing.’
Her reassuring hand squeezes beneath his elbow, guiding him to his feet.
‘Oh, and I forgot your lemonade. Never mind. We’ll get you some when we’re back inside. You’ll be more comfortable in bed. It’s getting cooler out here and I’m sure the breeze is picking up.’
Her honey voice drips into his troubled mind, soothing its way across the jagged edges of his darkness.
‘The bandages,’ he croaks. ‘I couldn’t …’
‘I know, Robbie. Perhaps it was too soon to come outside. The garden’s a big place when … Yes, better inside, I think.’
He can touch the walls from his bed, knows the limits.
‘You’ll enjoy it much more later,’ she’s saying, ‘It’ll not be long, and there’s plenty of Summer left.’
He nods, but doesn’t know if she sees.
Soon, when the bandages come off, it will be all right.
The garden will be waiting and he will see.