My bed was still within the ward, but the ward was now part of the forest. It was no surprise that this provider of pain-relief should now be transforming into a shaman whose powers had been cultivated on the moist carpet of the forest floor.
It was the decaying leaves that I was treading on as I returned to the woods. I had slipped from beneath the sheets and eased onto the floor without being noticed. I would have liked to say that I heard an owl overhead, but nothing made a sound in that darkened place. If creatures lived here, they would be the type that lived in a plague of stillness, never once breaking beyond it to announce the coming of death. To move in such a place was to invite discovery.
Winter was upon that world. Each passing moment sought to establish its claim. It was a season of sleep, a time when wiser creatures fell to feeding upon their reserves. A time to have a full belly and an abundance of fat that would provide a protection from the harsh winds that were sweeping in from the gun-grey sea. Fat is insulation, it keeps things out and traps things in. Fat can save or kill depending on the season.
I had not eaten for a number of days, almost the entire time since being ripped from my life. I had been torn from a Sunday ride and dropped within a place without reason. And now, in the time before winter, I was bare-footed and repentant, and the braches wanted my confusion. With the last of the light came the first of the snow. It fell as if announcing the fracture of the night sky, the fall of stars, and I put my head down and placed one naked foot in front of the other as my only way of making my task less daunting. I had not moved six feet before the frozen fall began to block my path. My feet were bitten and angry and, for a moment, I wished for the certainty of the ward and the plimsolls that advertised the arrival of the midnight strollers. The more I tried to move, the more entrenched the path became until its layers fell upon themselves, again and again, and trapped me. This would be the place where it all would end. I would either wake forever or never wake again.
“Date of birth please.”
It was my drugs guru, the smiling face that offered welcome pain relief.
“Date of birth please.”
I was old enough, older than Methuselah, and twice as bitter. I gave him my name, my date of birth, my mother’s maiden name, my wife’s name, the cat’s name and my national insurance number. Then, I begged him for some of the strong stuff. My drug dispenser had Chinese-Asian features, a constant smile which hinted at knowledge beyond his role, and a cocktail waiter’s approach to the business of vanquishing post-accident trauma. As usual, the collection of ‘meds’ came in a small plastic tumbler that was chased down by the merest hint of H2O (water to those who have never been human).
“Now you are ready for the woods, my friend. You will be cold as it is now winter there. The children have hidden themselves until the return of the sun, but the old woman will be waiting in her den. She has been awaiting somebody like you for many years. She will greet you and maybe she will offer to feed you, but be careful what you consume, her drugs are not as friendly as mine.”
It struck me as odd that this ordinary member of the nursing community should be speaking to me in a manner that belonged more to a pantomime than a thoracic ward. And as the lines were delivered, I watched his features dissolve into a galaxy of smiles. I was swallowing the tumbler of good medicine and washing it down with the water that had been placed at my side.
“You can sleep or you can wake.”
Neither presented an alternative, all roads led to Rome and it appeared that everybody was now wearing complete sets of personal protective equipment.
To wake in an alien environment, surrounded by figures almost entirely covered in materials whose function it was to stop the spread of disease, was to be born again. It was a birth that was not welcome. I was an alien in this world. Even my drugs guru was now sporting a full face visor over a fabric face mask.
Emerging from sleep, having returned from a place that was both recognisable and disconcerting, to a ward that was equally disconcerting and much too recognisable, was to be nudged awake to find oneself watching the world from the inside of a snow-globe where opposing weather systems were continually swirling in an unsettled universe. At one point I thought that I must be trapped within the bubble whilst at another I was looking into it.
“Have you been here all night?” I asked.
I thought that I saw movement beneath the mask and took this for a smile. His answer to my question never managed to arrive before the medication slipped into me. The pain was gone. I was hovering just above the sheets and I felt that I could just about do anything that my mind was able to conjure.
In these latter days, the muscles that controlled my spine had shown themselves to be forgetful. When I tried to raise myself from sleep, nothing happened. Somebody along the way had said that I must try and get myself up, that it would come back to me. That once I could do this, I would be well on the way to full recovery. Apart from one time when somebody had offered me assistance to sit up ‘without much help’ I had not been able to rise unassisted. This was my tragic flaw, the part of me that made the rest vulnerable, amongst the other things.
Each morning when I woke, I set about a mixture of small physical exercises, such as lifting one leg at a time up to six inches into the air, and deep-body Zen-like persuasions that were intended to fool my broken parts into temporarily believing that they were undamaged. This all worked well until the final part of the plan was put into effect. At that point, those areas of me that feigned conviction, merely sloped away to escape conflict. At times like that, it was difficult to forgive the cowards in the ranks, and the deceivers in the cosmos, whose aid had been enlisted to bring about my downfall. My only ally was the drugs man and he had mysteriously disappeared.