A Chapter by Peter Rogerson

In his coma Bernie Walpole relives a moment from his childhood as the nurse gives him a bed-bath...


It was a male voice that he heard in the maelstrom of tiny sounds that cluttered the inside of his ears. It was harsher than last night’s almost cheery goodnight, though whether anything was good or even what night might be was hard to understand in the numbing loneliness of a floating, lightless universe, the one he inhabited, the one where he was.

But last night’s goodnight had been feminine. He had cuddled up to the sounds, wanted to open eyes that wouldn’t respond, just to see who was whispering it.

Better turn him, nurse, it said, though no man can say when he’ll wake up, or if he ever does. But it would be a sad day if he did and he woke to running sores on his backside…

And then the softer voice,

I was going to do it as soon as I’ve washed his front…

Then the sound of laughter.

He’d heard laughter like that before. A pinprick of dazzling light inside his head slowly opened up and illuminated a scene that may have been memory or may have been imagination … how was he to know which, he who knew nothing?

He felt rotten.

We’ve all had it, Bernie, said his mother’s voice, laughing at him cheerily. That was the laughter, his mother, and he was nine...

How did he knew he it was his mother’s voice? How could he remember that one voice out of so many, and there he was lying on the settee in front of the fire, its heat bathing him as he shivered and then melting him as he sweated.

That settee was old and lumpy. It had to be lumpy because something had gone wrong inside it and the springs poked through in uncomfortable places.

There had been a time when he’d really believed that all settees were like that, with last week’s newspapers stuffed inside to stop those awkward springs from poking through. It had been a daft thought, really. It was only their settee that was like that, uncomfortable and likely to penetrate your flesh with a needle-pointed spring if you bounced on it. Best not to bounce, then. Best just to sit still.

I feel rotten, mummy, he heard himself whisper. And he did. He was shivering one minute and sweating buckets the next. He was being sick and then he wasn’t being sick. It was horrible.

You’ve only got a touch of flu, she had said, it’ll be gone soon enough and then you’ll be back out on the street kicking a football about with all your little friends…

He didn’t like kicking a football about! Why should he want to go out there where David What’s-his-name who was good at kicking footballs about would beat him to every goal? And David What’s-his-name wasn’t even a friend, let alone a little friend. David What’s-his-name was twelve and he was a bully…

I’m going to die, mummy…

It had almost been a belief. He was dying like a forgotten daddy had died. Hadn’t he been a pathetic little wimp? What mother could possibly have had a moment spare to love a creature like the one he had been? And hadn’t he seen the way that same mother had struggled to cook and clean when she herself had been poorly with the flu only last week? But he hadn’t cared, had he? He’d gone about his days as if everything in the world was right.

He’d even forgotten to mention her in his prayers at bed time…

Dear Jesus, he had muttered, thank you for feeding me today and thank you for the way David What’s-his-name fell and scuffed his knees till they bled, and Jesus, stop Barry from pinching my sweets when I’m not looking, I haven’t got many and I’m saving them up for summer when we’re on the train going on holiday …and Jesus, if you want to prove that you’re really, really there how about making my stuffed elephant come to life in the night so that tomorrow, when I wake up, he’s asleep next to me, and breathing like I breathe?

No mention of his mother’s illness there, then. Just his own miserable selfish hopes and dreams, and a stinking old stuffed elephant. And, come to think of it, he suddenly realised that it hadn’t been Barry pinching the sweets that he kept in a jam-jar but he himself, when nobody, not even himself, was looking.

As a kid he’d been good at self-deceit.

I’m going out to buy some medicine, Bernie, his mother had said, pulling on her coat. Had it really been as tatty as that? The kind of coat that any old bag lady and not his precious mother might wear?

The doctor gave me medicine, mummy, he had mumbled.

And she had smiled.

I know, but someone has to fetch it from the chemist’s shop. But I don’t mean that, I mean the special medicine I’m fetching from the shops, she had said, smiling reassuringly, now you stay put and don’t think of going anywhere, I won’t be long…

And off she’d popped.

Mothers did that back in those days. They left their eight year or nine year olds to themselves and went out, and nothing wrong happened, nothing nasty, no strangers came into their houses with knives and guns… The world just carried on and nobody even cared.

He remembered that lonely hour. He had started sweating as if he was about to melt. Why, he’d even wearily lowered himself off the lumpy settee onto the lino that was on the floor, nice, cold lino, and he’d rubbed himself onto its almost icy surface until, suddenly, he’d felt cold. Really cold, like the dead might feel cold.

He watched the image in the mush of his head under that one bright light as he dragged himself back onto the lumpy settee and tried to absorb all the radiant heat from the fire instead of the cold from the floor. But there wasn’t enough. There would never be enough, not now that he was so dreadfully cold, and mummy wasn’t there for him to complain to.

He actually dozed off to sleep! It was as if a witch had waved her magic wand over him and sent him into a land where things were different. Where trees were even taller, where ogres lived amongst them and where there was caves for nightmares to play themselves out in drama after drama of fear and dread.

Bernie! I’m home…!

He opened his eyes and he was neither hot not cold, neither shivering nor sweating…

And she held up a roll of sweets. Sherbet, they were, discs of solid sherbet tasting like fruit ought to taste, all sharp and sugary at the same time. He loved those sweets, the taste, the way they tingled in his mouth and especially the way they made him feel better.

I’d better wipe your face, Bernie, she had said, and she fetched a flannel that somehow smelt of dishwater and wiped his face, and then his hands where the sweets had made them sticky.

There, that’s better, and my, don’t you suddenly look well?

And he did suddenly feel well. In the dream, that is, not inside his head. That still felt as if a huge ball of cotton wool had been scrunched up and forced into his ears until his whole head was filled with the stuff.

What in the name of anyone or anything is cotton wool?

And the woman with the sweet voice was wiping him expertly as the man wrote things onto a sheet of paper. He could hear the pen scratching away, the sound of it being tapped occasionally as the writer thought about what to write next. And the gentle cleansing, wipe, wipe, wipe, while the woman whispered at him there’s a big boy, Mr Walpole…

And the male voice,

Be careful how firmly you wipe that part of him, nurse, it’s starting to look alive…

And the nurse giggling like a schoolgirl having fun.

© Peter Rogerson 26.04.18

© 2018 Peter Rogerson

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Added on April 26, 2018
Last Updated on April 26, 2018
Tags: flu, childhood, sweating, shivering, shopping, sweets, sherbet


Peter Rogerson
Peter Rogerson

Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom

I am 79 years old, but as a single dad with four children that I had sole responsibility for I found myself driving insanity away by writing. At first it was short stories (all lost now, unfortunately.. more..