“And this” says Staff Nurse Riley, as she opens the door to number 13 “is Jack’s room”.
Gemma follows the Staff Nurse in to meet Jack – her very first patient.
A frail man with sparse white hair is sitting upright in the bed, staring straight ahead.
Gemma’s voice betrays her nervousness.
“Jack doesn’t speak” the Staff Nurse explains “Do you, my lovely?” The Staff Nurse sits at Jack’s bedside, a hand resting on his arm. “That’s why he’s my favourite” she goes on “you won’t hear any complaints from this sweetheart”.
Gemma glances at three framed photographs on the bedside cabinet. A black-and-white picture of a soldier and his bride, a photo of the same girl with a pram and another of a man with his hand on the shoulder of a young boy. The boy is dressed for sports, a football tucked under one arm.
Gemma wonders if that is Jack’s life story, told in those three photographs.
Staff Nurse, turns business-like “Now we need to get Jack ready for his visitors” she says. Gemma is guided through the ablutions procedure and then shown how to move their patient from the bed into the wheelchair. “You may as well have a go at feeding Jack today” she says. “Remember, take your time and don’t rush him. Not that he has much appetite anyway, do you my darling?”
Gemma was dreading this, but her training kicks in and Jack manages a little of the scrambled eggs and most of the orange squash, which he drinks through a straw. Staff Nurse nods her approval. Not a bad start.
“Now then Jack” says the Staff Nurse “we’re taking you for a little ride. You have visitors today. Isn’t that nice?”
The day room is a large open plan space next to the kitchen. Sofas, armchairs and coffee tables are placed so as to allow access to wheelchairs. French windows face the lawn, which today is soaked from the persistent rain that has lasted for days.
Gemma wheels Jack to a position facing the windows, next to two armchairs.
“He’ll be fine there until his son comes.” The Staff Nurse leads Gemma away to their next patient who, she warns the trainee nurse, will be considerably more testing.
Jack is left alone. He sits unmoving, empty-eyed.
“There he is.” A slim, balding man crosses the day room towards Jack, removes an anorak dripping with rainwater and takes the armchair closest to his father. “Hello Dad” he says.
The man, Jack’s only son, Robert, is followed across the room by a smartly-dressed woman whose tight-lipped expression speaks of her distaste for her surroundings. She slumps reluctantly into the second armchair and immediately begins checking her smartphone for messages.
Robert leans forward, takes his father’s hand in his own. “How are you doing, Dad?” he asks, gazing into those expressionless eyes. “Are they treating you okay?”
“They should be” his wife mutters sourly “at the rates they are charging.”
“Now don’t start, Stella” Robert replies “he needs a lot of taking care of.”
Stella grumbles something barely audible but clearly cutting as her husband hears it and bridles.
“I suppose you’d rather we left him to rot in the care home?”
Stella is ever ready to take up the familiar argument. “He was all right there” she replies “and it was a damn sight cheaper.”
“And the staff were stealing money right out of his wallet!” Robert is almost shouting now.
The bickering is cut short as a porter wheels an elderly lady into the day room and places her by the rain-spattered French windows, where she sits slumped in her wheelchair.
Stella rises to her feet. “I’m going to wait in the car” she says “Marie is expecting me for lunch at Bella Italia at twelve thirty. Don’t make me late.” And she is gone.
Robert is still clinging to his father’s hand, scanning the familiar well-loved face for any sign of recognition. There is none. And now the pressure to get Stella to her appointment is beginning to weigh on him.
“I have to go Dad” he says. “I’ll come and see you again next Sunday. If I can.” Clumsily he kisses Jack on the forehead, squeezes the limp hand once more and walks quickly away.
The day room falls quiet, save for the blustery rain shower battering the windows.
A little later, the Staff Nurse, with Gemma in tow, returns to check on Jack.
“Now then, my darling” she says “did we have a nice visit?” Jack continues to gaze emptily out at the sodden lawn.
“Right, Gemma, we’ve got five minutes to grab a quick coffee before the next round. We can leave these two young people to get to know one another” the Staff Nurse jokes, indicating Jack and the comatose woman in the other wheelchair. Chuckling to herself, she heads for the kitchen.
But Gemma doesn’t follow her.
“Staff Nurse” she says, her voice trembling a little “look!”
“What is it?”
“Look, he’s smiling!”
Staff Nurse turns and almost runs to Jack’s chair. “My God” she says in a whisper “He is. He really is!”
She kneels down at Jack’s side and tries to follow the direction of his gaze. She sees nothing but the rain-soaked lawn.
“What do you see, Jack?” she asks “Is there something out there?”
Jack’s face is animated, his eyes shining.
He sees her now, coming towards him across the sun-drenched grass. She waves madly at him. Her blond curls bouncing as she quickens her pace, her white pumps dancing across the lawn and the bright colours on her summer dress sparkling.
Jack jumps to his feet and steps out into the glorious sunshine. He skips down the flight of steps and strides in her direction. They meet, breathless with excitement at the reunion. They embrace and Jack closes his eyes as he holds her to him.
It has been such a long time. A lifetime. But now they can start all over again.
In the day room, Staff Nurse Riley is still kneeling beside her favorite patient, looking out at the rain. A trace of the smile that Jack had started in her lingers on her face.
But then, as she turns to look again at him again, her expression changes.