The fog was thicker now, and I was getting more and more frozen and miserable as I trudged home along the slushy pavement. It was one of those days when before the fog came down, I could see snow hanging around in the trees and on buildings as a sparkling white beauty pageant, yet on the pavements and roads it was one long ghastly slippery brown mush.
I’d known Abbeyside Road for most of my life. It’s one of those busy main thoroughfares linking the suburbs of South London to the heart of the metropolis, and had been an important route, I suppose, since the days of coaches and horses. I reflected that my mother used to say that while houses and scenery change all the time, roads always stay the same, whether they’re straggling farm tracks, cobbled highways or soft black asphalt, they always follow the same twists and turns and curves they’ve followed for centuries.
And because Abbeyside Road had been my home for such a long time now, I’d always taken a special interest in it. Actually I’ve also always enjoyed picturing roads through the ages, noticing which new building were added and when. And it has always interested me to see the sprinkling of lovely Victorian houses in Abbeyside Road, set down like spaced-out markers amongst the higgledy-piggety forest of ugly modern blocks of flats, shops and homes built in recent times that filled the areas that once must have been fields and meadows and even farms belonging to the posh people in the grand houses.
I’ll never know what exactly happened or why. But as I looked at my watch and saw it was six o’clock, suddenly the fog seemed to swallow up almost everything around. And yet, suddenly in the centre of my vision, I could see the little girl in the fancy dress running across the road. And behind her I heard a woman screaming.
Without thinking, I dashed out into the road, just in time to sweep the child into my arms as I heard what could only be described as the thunder of horses hooves and the rattle and hammering of wheels and the yell of a man’s voice to add to the cacophony. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the swaying horses and the carriage behind, I even caught a glimpse of a bright white fleck of froth on a horse’s nostrils, caught the smell of their sweat.
I made it to the other side of the road, pressing the child into the outstretched arms of the screaming woman, aware of the swooping rush of air as the horses and rattling carriage flew past behind me.
Next thing I knew I was lying on the ground in the slush, feeling an agonising pain in my left ankle.
“Are you okay, mate?” said a man of around my own age, who was kneeling above me.
“I don’t know what happened,” I replied in shock, trying to get to my knees, but resting back when the agony of my sprained ankle kicked in.
“Looks like you slipped on the slush,” added a woman, who appeared beside the man. “Do you live nearby?”
“Just down the road,” I told her.
“Our car’s just around the corner, Mike will go and get it, and we’ll take you home – unless you’d rather go to the hospital?”
“No need for that, thanks,” I replied. “I’m a nurse, and I’m pretty sure this is a sprained ankle, and the only treatment is rest, an elastic stocking and a bag of frozen peas.”
The kind couple helped me to my feet, and I managed to hobble to their car and they drove me home, and helped me up the stairs to my flat at the top of one of the big old houses at the bottom end of the road. They helped me get onto the sofa, even put the TV on, and made sure my phone and everything was within reach. As I thanked them, they made light of it. However, what Mike said stayed with me for a long time afterwards:
“Did you realise that when we first found you, you were going on about running into the road to save a child’s life? You were talking in a funny accent too, not the way you’re speaking now. We didn’t know what you were going on about.”
“Neither do I,” I answered truthfully.
I couldn’t go to work for a few days, all I could do was hobble about the flat, which left me a lot of time to phone people, read, watch TV and mess about online. I found a couple of websites devoted to local history, and was excited to see Abbeyside Road as it used to be in 1868. The sepia coloured photograph showed the large houses on each side of the road, with a horse and carriage taking centre stage. Just as I’d imagined, it was much more like a track through countryside in those days, the grand houses surrounded by trees and fields. There were a few people: a lady in a large flowing dress with a huge hat and a parasol, a man with a walking stick and a bowler hat, face nearly drowning in his luxuriant moustache. . .
Abbeyside Road was just as I imagined it would have looked in those far-off days, and I felt as if I’d already seen it somewhere. Presumably I had seen another old photograph somewhere and forgotten about it.
The following week I was back at work in the geriatric ward in the nearby General Hospital. I’ve always liked old people, and seeing to their needs isn’t the nightmare people might imagine it is, at least it’s no worse than caring for younger folk who are ill. And old people can be terrific company, you wouldn’t believe the lives some of them have led, the amazing things they tell you about. I had soon learnt that there’s no such thing as an old person, simply interesting lively people who wish they weren’t encased in worn-out bodies.
On my first day back I was tired out after the back-breaking hours, and glad to be off duty at the end of my shift.
I don’t know what made me decide to go into the side room, the room where we put patients who have only days or hours to live. In the bed was an old lady I hadn’t seen before, but something in her face seemed strangely compelling. I took a look at her notes, and it seemed that she had suffered a heart attack at home, at around six pm, a week ago today: oddly enough the same time as I had had my strange accident.
Since I knew that being in this room meant she was in such a delicate state that she might die literally at any time, I hated to think that she was alone. So I sat down on the chair beside her. Her skeletal hand, with the paper-thin yellow skin stretched across birdlike bones, rested on the pure white bedsheet. I covered it with my own, feeling fleeting fragments of her life’s warmth slipping away. Who knows how much we know or feel at the end of our lives? Maybe the touch of another person might give her a bit of comfort. From the almost non-existent rise and fall of her chest I knew from experience that she hadn’t got long to live now, poor old soul.
She opened and closed her mouth, which was a surprise, since at that stage of terminal illness people have normally long since stopped speaking.
After another couple of movements, she began to speak in a very quiet voice:
“I remember my nan used to tell us about how she was nearly killed as a child. She’d run away from her mother, into the main road right in front of a coach and horses. The driver couldn’t stop in time, but this boy with red hair came out of nowhere, ran out and picked her up and out of the way. Afterwards, so I was told, they saw the boy hobble away – he’d hurt his left foot – but they were never able to find him, or thank him properly. And if he hadn’t saved her life, my mum wouldn’t have been born, nor would I. . . We always wanted to thank the red haired boy. . .We always talked about him, he was part of our family legends, we always wanted to find him. . .”
And then, just for a second, she opened her eyes and looked directly at me.
“But I’ve found him now, haven’t I?”
For a fleeting moment there was something in her face I recognised, that was deep down, almost a part of me. I felt as if my spirit touched hers, if such a thing is possible, as if I was a part of her, and she was a part of me. And as if I had seen her face before, a long long time ago, in a dream perhaps, or in another lifetime.
Then she closed her eyes and her chest stopped moving. And the almost imperceptible up-and-down motion shifted further down her body, becoming what we call ‘abdominal breathing’ that heralds the final curtain.
“Hello John, I’d know that red hair anywhere,” said kindly Dr Kumar when she came in a few minutes later, after I’d informed the staff nurse of the death. Charming Dr Kumar always seemed too young and delicately ladylike to have to do some of the grisly things doctors have to do. “Did you know her well?”
“No, I didn’t know her at all. I was just passing the room, and looked in and stayed, hoping a relative might come in. I didn’t want her to be on her own.”
“She was a very interesting lady. One of the nurses said her family have lived in this area since Victorian times. She was saying that her great grandparents were quite affluent citizens, apparently they owned one of the big houses along the road.”
As I sat there, waiting with her body while Dr Kumar went outside to fetch more help I pondered on the thousands of mysteries there are in life and death. It’s as if we only ever get given tiny slivers of the truth, as if our minds simply cannot grasp the complexity of all these unanswered questions: if there’s life after death, reincarnation, the mysteries of a soul, you name it. Almost as if God knows that our brains are so inadequate, He only lets us have a tiny fraction of the truth at a time, so that it can never add up to anything that makes sense.
I would never know why I had slipped to the ground on that foggy night at six o’clock. But I’m very glad I did.
It made me realise that maybe we’re all part of something amazing and huge that no one can ever really understand.
And that maybe we’re all somehow connected.
I looked once again at the old lady. And impossible though it was, for a split second I though I saw her mouth twitch in a smile.
(picture courtesy Gordon Johnson, from Pixabay)