Billy sat up in his bed and gazed out of the window, casting his mind to the world outside. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been here and it certainly didn’t seem like he’d be leaving anytime soon. He fiddled nervously with the itchy bed sheet that was his only source of comfort, imagining it was the soft shawl his mother knitted last winter. Any sunlight that might have reached the streets of London that day was swallowed whole by the endless smog that seemed to weigh everything down like a heavy blanket. Billy sniffed a tear away and turned his attention back to the cavernous hospital room. The faded yellow walls looked like they had been painted with mustard and the ceiling seemed to be as high as the heavens. Not that the room felt anything like heaven. It felt more like an oversized prison cell. But for now at least, this was his home. He’d pass the long empty days talking to imaginary friends and daydreaming the time away. Feeling desperately alone, he longed for someone to talk to.
He heard the familiar hum of distant voices in the corridor outside. He was usually only aware of the voices sounding further and further away, as though the whole world and everyone was disappearing. He hated it when he heard the voices wailing. He’d put his hands over his ears as quickly as they started, but never managed to block them out in time. They reminded him of the night his sister disappeared. The memory was too vivid of his mother crying and the hushed tones of other adults as he crept into the room and asked what was happening. The adults said that Sadie had gone away for a while, but he knew something was wrong. She wasn’t well enough to go away on her own, and all of the adults seemed to be trying to keep his eyes away from the shape under the white bedsheet before they ushered him back upstairs.
The wails drew closer and suddenly filled the room. A metal bed just like his was wheeled in by two stony faced matrons. He pulled the itchy bedsheet up to his face until it scratched the soft skin of his face. He chewed the inside of his cheek and silently watched the events before him. A boy, an older boy, maybe two or three years older than him, was being wheeled into the room and into the empty bay at the opposite end. Despite looking older, the boy’s face was crumpled up like a toddler as he seemed to howl at everything around him. Both of the boy’s legs were hoisted up in huge white plaster casts and swayed like big white beams. He was writhing in what Billy couldn’t tell was pain or frustration, and thrashing on the bed, which seemed to be making matters worse for himself. Although he felt sorry for the boy, Billy wished he was a little quieter, as the terrible pained sounds seemed to be magnified as they bounced around the bare solid stone walls. Billy pulled his blanket further up to bury his face to shield him from the dreadful sound and put his fingers in his ears.
“Ahhhhh”, The boy’s wails carried around the room.
The large matron with dark lacquered hair and half rimmed glasses seemed to exude the coldness of a busy Victorian head teacher.
“Come on now lad, calm yourself!” she barked, in a tone that sounded more like a threat than the reassurance the vulnerable boy needs. She sighed and smoothed down her smock, as if to compose herself.
“Ere, take this medicine and then settle yourself down”.
She poured out a spoonful of some pink liquid from a small brown bottle and gave it to the boy.
“Ahhh – Urgh!! Yuk!” he protested.
The boy tried to spit out the vile pink liquid. Billy recoiled inside himself and grimaced. He knew that the pink liquid tasted nasty and bitter, and left you with horrible burps for a long time afterwards. But it did help the pain go away.
“Swallow it! If you spit it out, you’ll have to have an injection in your cheeks instead” the exasperated nurse sighed loudly. “- And I don’t mean the cheeks on yer face!”.
She brandished the spoon towards the boy once more, tutting at the pink drops that fell onto his clean bedsheets.
“Bloomin’ children not doing as they’re told”, She muttered under her breath to the other nurse, “They don’t know what’s good for ’em.”
The little blonde nurse kept her head down, but gave Billy a secret wink and her usual friendly smile. Billy’s eyes smiled back from behind his bed sheet. The other boy coughed and spluttered as he reluctantly swallowed the pink medicine.
“There we are. We’ll be back in the morning for breakfast”. And with that the tall draconian matron stomped out of the room, the friendly nurse quickly scurrying behind, closing the door quietly behind them and giving the two boys a warm smile as she left.
With no one left to listen to his cries the new boy sulked quietly. He slumped in his bed with his arms crossed. His face was still crumpled up, his bottom lip sucked in showing the dimples in his chin. His mouth was upturned and lips pouted in enraged defiance. From under his heavy frown he briefly glanced at Billy and then instantly returned his gaze to the speck of fluff on the floor. Billy’s eyes were wide open in shock at the sudden change in his room after so long, but he tried not to stare. He didn’t know what to say to the boy. So for a long while he gazed out of his window and returned to his imagination. Now the drama had waned, he felt a little stir of joy in his belly that he finally had some company. Maybe the new boy could be his friend, that would make the days so much better. He smiled to himself and breathed a little deeper. He’d been lonely for so long and the only people he had to talk to were the nurses looking after him. They were usually friendly, but never had much time to spend with him. He knew the nurse with the fair hair was called Mary because she told him so. She stayed talking to him when she brought him some chocolate bourbons on one of her secret trips from the canteen, but he was supposed to call her “nurse” when the others were around, otherwise she might get in trouble.
Billy woke several hours later. His sleepy eyes adjusted to the bright lights of the room always seemed to flicker and hum. He was delighted to see the grumpy face of the new boy at the other end of the room.
“Hello!” he blurted out, before he could decide not to.
The grumpy boy ignored Billy and seemed to still be staring at the inanimate piece of fluff on the floor.
“What’s your name?” Asked Billy. His legs fidgeted with excitement, the other boy’s mood did not put him off on little bit. “Hey you, what’s your name?” he persisted.
The other boy grunted but gave no answer. “My names Billy. What’s wrong with your legs?” Sensing that he wasn’t going to have a response, he chatted away, hoping that the boy would join in, although he was happy to simply be talking to someone else, even if they weren’t talking back. “They look like big white clasterplasts. My dad says that if you break your legs, doctors fix them by putting on big white clasterplasts on them for 3 months and then they saw them off with a big rusty saw. Not the legs, I mean they saw off the clasterplasts and -”
“Be quiet!” snapped the other boy.
Billy was thrown off guard. He closed his lips as tight as a drawstring purse. His brown eyes pulled tight as he scolded himself for talking too much. Maybe the other boy didn’t know about the big rusty saw.
“They’re not ‘clasterplasts’, they’re plaster casts! Pah, what do you know anyway” and he continued to stare at the fluff, crossing his arms in tighter.
“Did you break your legs?”, Billy peeped cautiously.
“Yes I broke my legs. Stop talking to me”. The grumpy boy folded his arms again and looks away.
“How did you break your legs?” Billy started chewing on the side of his lip “Did someone else break them or did you do it?”
“Neither, silly! I fell off a wall”
“Wow!” Billy was filled with awe at his new companion’s bravery “How high was it? It must have been high to break both your legs. I bet it was as high as a house. Was it as high as a house? Or a bus?”
The second boy hesitated. The wall hadn’t been high at all, but he was running away from the angry greengrocer and tripped over the small cobbled wall at such an awkward angle that he landed as hard as the bag of apples he’d stolen just moments ago. Except that he couldn’t roll into several directions to spread the impact, so his little legs had snapped beneath him and he cried in pain he’d not thought possible as the fat hairy man stomped up to him, his face softening ever so slightly as he yelled to one of the other merchants
“Terry…. You’d better get the ol’ quack out ‘ere, this don’t look good”.
The grumpy boy looked at Billy from under the weight of his heavy frown
“Yes it was very high.” The other boy stated, holding his chin a little higher, “As high as a bus, it was.”
Billy pushed against his pillows and sat more upright to listen closer, enthralled by the bravery of the grumpy boy.
“That must have hurt!”
The grumpy boy’s eyes winced involuntarily as remembering the painful anguish as he squirmed on the floor like a fly with its wings pulled out. He pulled his cheeks tight to hide his emotion and shrugged nonchalantly.
“Not really.” He uncrossed his arms a little so he could puff out his chest to feel bigger. “What’s wrong with you anyway? You look fine”.
Billy looked away.
“Nurses say my lungs need medicine. “…’S ok though, I like it here…” his small voice tailed off.
“Well it’s alright for you, you’re by that big window!” The grumpy boy said bluntly “My legs really hurt. All I’ve got to look at is these four walls to look at” he snaps, gesturing to the empty room. He humphed out of his nostrils and looked back to Billy. “- and boring old you.”
Billy scrunched up his nose and forced an apologetic smile, but it looked more like a grimace. He turned to his window as if to separate himself from the room and everything inside it.
“Can’t we swap places?” The bigger boy boomed a few moments later, “I’ll let you go back after a while… promise.”
Billy stayed quiet for a moment, unsure of what to say.
“I don’t think I can… I need these machines for my lungs you see” he waved feebly at the tall square machines next to his bed.
Before he could push it further, they were interrupted by the huge double doors swinging open.
“Alright Thomas, time for your medicine!” shouted the portly nurse as her voice filled the room. Thomas groaned and turned his face away as she poured the dreadful thick liquid onto the spoon. He felt the bile rise in anticipation at its bitter flavour. The light in the room was eclipsed by her gigantic bosoms as she lent forwards and brought the spoon towards him. Reluctantly he swallowed, knowing from experience now that this was the easier option. And despite the taste, it did take the pain away from his legs. Thomas snarled at Billy as he gave in to the nurse’s demands. Billy shrank into his bed and looked out the window.
The nurse jerked her head between the two boys’ beds.
“What are you two up to?” she barked. “Be nice to Billy, there’s no point making enemies in here.”
“I don’t have to be nice to anyone”, he whined “It’s alright for him, he’s got a window to look out of. What have I got to do in here, I’m bored out my wits!! Why can’t we swap? I’m in more pain than he is.”
“Don’t be silly.” She replied, “It doesn’t make a difference whose bed is where and if you’re in too much pain I’ll give you some more of that pink medicine”. She leant forward again threatening him with the spoon.
Thomas didn’t want more of the bitter pink medicine so he pursed his lips and for once, didn’t answer back. After the nurse had stomped out of the room he muttered to himself, “Well if it doesn’t make a difference then why can’t I go there”. He crossed his arms, pouted his lips and had a good long sulk for as long as he could.
The pain in Thomas’ arms woke him with a start. He’d fallen asleep with his arms crossed and now they were so stiff they felt worse than his broken legs. He tried to straighten them.
“Argh!” his hands stung as the blood rushed back into them. Billy suppressed a snigger from the opposite end of the room.
“Argh get the nurse. My arms!” Thomas grimaced in pain as he managed to uncross his arms and they lay lifeless and limp by his sides “Argh, help!”
“They’re dead!” laughed Billy
“You’ll be dead if you don’t get the nurse. Ahhh!”
“No, they’re dead! You feel asleep with the them crossed. You looked like a big dead corpse you did, asleep with your arms crossed like that.”
Thomas took deeper breaths and the feeling started to return to his hands. He was sick of that goody two shoes he had to share this room with. Why were the nurses were always so nice to that other boy but mean to him? And he had the best bed by the big window. Why should Billy get all the good treatment when I’ve got two broken legs, he thought to himself. Thomas was so bored of this room, with its plain yellow walls and that annoying younger boy in the other bed. He was always so chirpy, watching the world go by from his nice big window.
“Argh!” he shouted in utter frustration.
“What’s wrong?” peeped Billy nervously, before clearing his throat.
“I’ve had enough! Make the nurse swap our beds. I’m so bored! I want to look out the window. You ask the nurse, they don’t listen to me, but they’re always nice to you. I’ve seen that one gives you biscuits. I never get anything I want!” ranted Thomas.
Billy’s hand involuntarily went to his mouth, startled that Thomas knew about the biscuits. He would have offered him some but couldn’t reach him from here so tried to chew quietly while he was sleeping so that he didn’t notice. Billy knew that Thomas wouldn’t be happier by the window, despite what he thought.
“You can watch the world go by” Thomas continued ,“I bet you can see all sorts of things from up here, over the whole of the city. I’ve got nothing to look at and I aren’t seen daylight in weeks!”
Billy nervously glanced from Thomas to the window to Thomas again. He wasn’t feeling well and tried to breathe slowly so his lungs didn’t start to feel stiff and make that awful crackling noise,
“Well, how about I tell you what I see” he offered.
“What’s the point if I can’t see it myself. I’ll just know what I’m missing”
Billy smiled sympathetically.
“No you won’t” he turned to the glass, “Look, close your eyes and I’ll tell you what I see.”
Reluctantly, but with nothing else to do to pass the time, Thomas closed his eyes. The moments of quiet that followed seemed to give Billy the permission he needed to go ahead, so he started to describe the men working on the docks, how they saw in the big ships with their giant wooden boxes full of exotic items. The men were working hard to bring in the goods and load them onto the trucks. Billy described the fruit sellers and the fish merchants at the market by the docks, and the pretty ladies who came in for their daily shop. Thomas didn’t respond, but seemed to relax with Billy’s words. Billy leaned further towards the window as if looking more closely at what he could see. He told Thomas about the pickpockets slyly stealing fruit from the stalls. Thomas held his breath at this, not telling Billy that he was being chased by the greengrocer because he had stolen enough apples to obscure his view from that blasted wall he tripped over. As Billy carried on, Thomas for the first time since he got to this lonely room, felt content.
Over the next days, the comings and goings on the docks became part of the boys’ routine. Billy would gladly describe all the goings on in the busy trade areas and note any new faces that appeared. Thomas gradually warmed to Billy and was less snappy with the nurses too. The world outside was a welcome break from the monotony of the otherwise lifeless room.
Every day Thomas would ask what Billy could see. Billy’s face would light up each time and he would animatedly point at the hubbub outside. Between them they had named the regular faces and decided what their lives were like outside the dock. They imagined the dockworkers families, houses and stories. They decided that the fat man with the moustache who directed the boats in was called Barry. He wore a big brown Mac and the boys made up that his Mac was full of huge pockets hand sewn on the inside, and that he would secretly steal contraband from the ships like whiskey and naughty drawings of topless ladies, and share them with his friends after a hard day’s work. They also decided that the reason he was so fat was that he would go onto the ships as they docked and fill his belly with as much food as he could before ordering the others to unload it. They laughed at the image of the man sitting alone on the ship eating the cargo surrounded by piles of half eaten food, but both wished they could do the same. They yearned for the wonderful foods on the ships and imagined the taste, smells and textures to be had.
After a few weeks, Thomas started to get bored of the same things happening outside. There had been some days when very unusual things had happened like the ship full of exotic animals and the fight that broke out last week, but it was usually the same old things and the novelty was wearing off. He was starting to convince himself that there were more exciting things going on out there that Billy didn’t want to tell him because Thomas would want to swap places again.
That night as they lay in silence, Thomas tossed and turned trying to sleep. His legs were out of the stirrups now but still in their annoying cumbersome casts. He would be going home in a few weeks and didn’t want all his whole stay in this place to be at this boring end of this wretched room. As he lay in the yellow room he cursed Billy for not letting him swap places with him. As Billy wasn’t going to swap, he wished Billy would go away once and for all so that he could have the bed by the window instead. He wished and wished and wished and wished until he finally fell into a fitful sleep.
Thomas woke to commotion at the other end of the room. As he adjusted his eyes to the bright lights in the room, he saw there were nurses and doctors all around Billy’s bed.
“What’s going on” he mumbled, still bleary eyed.
“Settle yourself back down lad” said the large nurse, with an uncharacteristic softness in her voice that paradoxically unsettled him. He pretended to sleep but craned to try and hear over the commotion
“Oh dear, the poor lad” he heard a male voice say.
“Is he definitely gone? He fought so hard” the brave boy” whispered another voice.
Thomas frowned. Did he do this? Had his wish cursed Billy? Thomas had wished Billy would go away so that he could go by the window, but he hadn’t wished Billy dead. Shame filled his hollow stomach and his heart overflowed with regret. He screwed his eyes tight and wished that Billy would wake up.
“Quickly now, let’s move him out and call the parents”
Thomas yanked the sheet under his face and looked on as Billy’s bed was wheeled out of the room. The lifeless pale body looked tiny in the single metal bed. Before he could speak, his companion disappeared through the double doors along with the entourage of doctors and nurses. Alone in the empty room that felt ten times bigger without little Billy’s presence. Thomas wrapped his pillow around his ears and sobbed, feeling more alone than ever had before.
For three days Thomas didn’t say a word. The nurses, once cold and distant, we’re now friendly to him and chatted away as they brought his dinner and worked around him. But he didn’t have anything to say. He missed his friend. He especially missed Billy’s voice as he described the world outside.
As the buxom nurse brought Thomas his dinner, she stood for a moment and took a deep sigh.
“It’s awfully bad what happened to little Billy, but don’t worry, you’ll be out of here soon, lad”.
Thomas stared at the fluff on the floor that had grown and multiplied. He counted the bits of fluff around it. The nurse bent down and put her hand on Thomas’. She looked over at the empty space by the window. Hesitantly, she asked “How would you like it if we moved you over to the window instead for a change of scene? It might be good to have a change of view”.
Thomas stayed somber but his eyes slowly met hers. He waited to test to see if she was telling the truth. His pink lips pouted. Encouraged, she pressed on.
“…Hmmm, if you like, we can wheel you over. A new boy is arriving later. We were going to put him over there but there’s no reason why he can’t go here instead”.
“Yes… Ok. Yes please, I’d like that” Thomas bobbed his head. He sighed, and his guilt about that fateful night slipped away. He was bored with nothing to do, but now he’d finally be by the window. He’d be able to see the docks for himself. He’d see the fat man with the he moustache, the merchants, the pretty ladies, the ships. His breathing quickened until he could hardly contain himself. He couldn’t wait. Before he knew it the nurse had come back into the room with the matron and he was being wheeled across to the wonderful window with its amazing view. As he drew closer his breathing quickened in anticipation and he drummed his hands on his sheets. “There we are lad, just like you wanted” and the nurses left the room.
Thomas pushed himself up as far as he could go to get as much of the view as possible, but as he neared the window, his face froze in confusion. His mouth hung open and a crooked frown painted across his brow.
A whisper came out of his numb lips
It couldn’t be. It didn’t make sense. He leaned further to try and get a better angle. Still nothing. He wrapped his hands on the bars on his bed and craned towards the glass as close as he could, looking from side to side as far as he could reach without falling off the bed.
A tiny involuntary wail escaped his lips. Instead of seeing all of the hubbub that Billy had described, all that filled the entire view from the window was the large, plain, dirty brick wall of the building opposite. How long had it been there? Had it just been built since Billy was whisked away? It didn’t look new. It was filthy. And old looking. Where were the docks? Where were the people? Thomas held his head to stop the questions from spilling out of his mind.
“He made them all up!” he shouted.
Thomas couldn’t believe it. He felt like his while world had collapsed and nothing existed anymore. He felt like a prisoner that had just been given a life sentence.
“That liar!” he shouted to the empty room
“That bloody liar!”.
Brimming with fury, he threw his pillow across the room and pummeled his lumpy mattress with his fists
Between the groans and clunks of the corridor, Thomas heard whimpers drawing closer, with low murmuring voices. His breath was halted as the double doors swung open and a single bed came hurtling in, accompanied by the same matron and nurse that had brought him in on his first day here. In the middle of the bed was a small pale faced, frail looking boy. The boy’s bottom lip was quivering and a small whimpering sound was coming from him. He looked tiny as he tried to cower away into his sheet. His big wide eyes darted from side to side as if hoping for something familiar to comfort him. Thomas saw in the boy’s face the same fear he had felt but hadn’t want to show when he arrived. Thomas stayed quiet as the nurses arranged the bed and equipment around the boy, then left, taking the whirlwind with them. Silence filled the room, punctuated only by the boy’s small stifled whimpers.
For a while the boys didn’t speak, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Thomas assessed his vulnerable new companion. Thomas had nothing else to do and felt a brotherly sense of compassion for the frightened face before him.
“Hello” he offered, once the boys whimpers had settled.
“Hello” squeaked the boy from behind his blanket.
“My name’s Thomas. What’s your name?”
“My names Matthew. I’m 10.” said the boy
They were both quiet for a while
“Don’t be scared, it’s not so bad in here” Thomas fibbed, trying to comfort Matthew.
“Yup” peeped Matthew. His fearful eyes than scanned the room. “What’s going on out there?… I bet there’s more going on out there than there is in here.”
Thomas frowned and glanced at the wall outside
“Not really, there’s noth-”
Matthews face started to crumple again as he struggled to hold in the tears that would give way his sadness. He brought his sheet up to his eyes and buried them in the itchy fabric. Thomas scrunched up his face and looked at the empty brick canvas.
“Can you see the boys school from there? Asked Matthew through shiny eyes, “I miss my friends. What can you see?”
Thomas glanced from Matthew, to the window, to Matthew again. Realisation trickled over him like a warm blanket. The lights flickered overhead. The empty room was lifeless and hollow.
“Well…” he muttered, quietly “…I suppose…”
“Yes?” Matthew pleaded.
Thomas took a deep breath that filled his lungs. He sat up, decidedly.
“From here” he started, “From here I can see all over the Isle of Dogs. There’s the docks there you see, and the ships come in with different things each. Sometimes they bring people in long colourful clothes, and sometimes they have big boxes of cargo the size of a car…”.
Thomas went on to describe all of the things that Billy had said, and more. He told Matthew about the sights, the people, the animals, the clouds in the sky and everything he could imagine. Sometimes he’d point animatedly to the brick outside as if spotting something for the first time, and felt a warm glow as Matthew beamed at the stories he told.
Matthew seemed to uncurl himself from the knot of his sheets as he finally started to settle, and both boys flourished in each other’s company. Thomas finally saw that Billy had given them both a gift. Billy’s imagination had painted the room with colours and ultimately taught Thomas what it meant to put someone else first. He felt ashamed to have learnt this from a younger boy who he had looked down upon, but could now see Billy’s kindness for what it was.
Several weeks later, both the boys were chatting away and looking ahead to what lay ahead for them. They knew they’d both be leaving soon. They both stopped mid-sentence as the doors swung open without warning, the two nurses smiling as they entered the room.
“Right then Matthew, it’s time to go. Your Aunt is downstairs ready to take you on the train” said the big nurse gently.
“And you’re coming with me, Thomas, you’ve got a long journey ahead” said the other nurse.
The boys held each other’s gaze, knowing it would be a long time before they would be able to see each other again. Thomas hopped off his bed, feeling as tall as a giant with his legs finally working again.
“Promise you’ll write?” squeaked Matthew hesitantly.
“Of course I will” Thomas smiled back.
Relieved, Matthew’s smile reached his eyes and for the first time in all his stay, he swung his feet and jumped down from his own bed. He slowly walked across to the opposite end of the room until he was next to Thomas’s bed. He stopped as his gaze then shifted to the window, for the first time taking in the whole view beyond the tall glass panes for himself. Thomas inhaled sharply and held his breath, suddenly panicking, freezing as if to slow down time and stop what was about to happen next. But instead of the anger and disbelief that Thomas expected, Matthew simply looked back at Thomas and wrapped his little arms around him like a little brother would and said
“I’ll miss those docks. We’d better remember what the pickpockets look like so we know who watch out for on our travels. I hope you get home soon.” The weight lifted off Thomas’ shoulders and he smiled back.
“See you soon little one.”
“You bet! Bye then!” his eyes twinkled.
And with that his new friend was gone.
“Come on Thomas, I thought you were desperate to get out of this place” smiled the nurse.
Thomas looked back at the room and through the bare window. He breathed in the room for the last time.
“What are you going to do with those legs of yours then now that they’re all mended?” Asked the nurse.
He met her the eyes and said “I think I might go and explore the docks”.
Image: https://iso.500px.com/weekly-contest-holding-hands-photos-selfie-theme/ Retrieved November 2016