Tuesday, June 1, 2021

The Boy in the Bed by Graham Crisp

It was on my second visit when I noticed him. 

The boy was cocooned in a starched white cover which he had pulled right up to his chin. His deep dark wide-open eyes were staring out of the hospital window. Not moving, he reminded me of a chrysalis, you know, similar to the ones I had seen in a biology book, in readiness for a colourful butterfly to emerge. 

Fascinated by his curious stillness, my thoughts drifted away from why I was really here. Suddenly, I felt a short hard jab in my ribs. Mother had got irritated with me.  She did the usual, you know, the poke in my side, a glare followed by a flick of the eyes towards my brother, then ‘that’ frown and finally a ‘speak to Jake, will you please, it’s him we’ve come to see.’ Her teeth now clenched, she reminded me of one of those stupid tooth paste ads. Christ what are ‘optic brighteners’ anyway?

I put on my best pleasant, caring face and evinced a thin smile at my older brother, Jake, who was now sitting upright in bed. He wasn’t wearing a pyjama top and I could see flecks of light brown hair emerging around his darkened pink nipples. Yuk, I wish he would cover up. I know I have been his kid sister for twelve and a half years, but the less I see of his flesh, the better for me and the rest of humanity.

Of course, I ask him how he is. Crappy small talk which mother kept interrupting with comments about his eating and does he want this, and does he want that. Hmmph – she never asks me these things. Her sole narrative to me centres on ‘you do this; you do that, and tidy up them’. Bored, my eyes drifted over to the solitary figure in the corner. He had turned over and was still tightly wrapped in a white sheet. His dark eyes were now lowered, apparently staring intently down on some medical gadget which was clipped to his forefinger. 

I needed the toilet, well I didn’t, but I wanted an excuse to get away from my pathetic brother and my doting mother.  I wandered away from the ward and past the nurse’s station. Behind the desk stood a tall, gangly lady clad in a dark blue uniform. She had kind eyes and said hello to me as I passed by. I hesitated, but I needed to know. Why, in all of the past seven days I had been forced, coerced and dragged along to see my useless idiot of a brother, the boy in the corner hadn’t had a single visitor. My eyes were level with this nurse’s large silver buckle. She looked down at me saying she couldn’t tell me too much about him, ‘patient confidentiality’ she said. Whatever did that mean? 

But what she did tell me about him totally horrified me. How could people, boys I presume, be so horrible as to ostracise him? Boys can be so vile and pathetic at times. I mean it’s just a bloody game after all.

OK joke over.

So, I misheard what the nurse said. Jake was laughing real tears and mother; well, she couldn’t look at me without uttering that whiney giggle that really got on my nerves. Yes, I DO KNOW the difference between a referee and a refugee, I just didn’t hear her properly; she had a foreign accent. Stop laughing now, you’re upsetting me.

I did my characteristic and well-rehearsed strop. I stamped my feet hard on the linoleum which echoed right across the ward. Immediately, the dark-haired boy quickly lifted his head and stared right at me.  I gulped as I saw genuine fear in his eyes.  

Instinctively I slid quietly over to him. I tried hard to look reassuring.  I told him my name, Beth. I asked him for his. He turned towards me, and looked directly at me. His wide brown eyes stared at the top of my head and descended slowly down to my canvas brown shoes. He mumbled something. I leaned forward and asked him to say it again. In a cracked voice I just made out the word ‘Rifat’ followed by a thin whisper, ‘my name is Rifat’.

I pulled up a chair and sat beside him. We chatted for a while, well in truth I did most of the talking, Rifat just lay there quietly listening to my yatter. I did manage to find out from him that he lived in Syria and that he was fourteen years old. He was a bit vague when I asked him how he got here to England. He muttered something on the lines of ‘on a boat’.

Mum was calling me, visiting time was up. I gently tapped my new friend on the shoulder and said that I would visit him again the next I came to see my brother. He smiled back. His white teeth glistened against his dark olive-coloured lips.

When we got into the car, I was anticipating a yelling from her. But she was surprisingly cool. She said that it was good of me to talk to that boy, she said I was courageous.

The next day we arrived at the ward dead on seven o’clock in the evening. I exchanged a few pleasantries with my brother who was now fully clothed and sitting in a bedside chair. I turned and nodded to Rifat and gave him a little wave. He waved back and Mum indicated with a flick of her eyes that I could nip over to Rifat’s bed and resume our conversation.

He told me that he had loved playing and watching football, and that he supported Teshrin, apparently a top Syrian team. He said that he tries to watch the English Premier League as often as he can and that he follows Chelsea. I poked him playfully in the ribs. How dare you follow Chelsea, I laughed, we are all Fulham fans here. Rifat at first looked alarmed, then he followed my lead and broke into a big grin. In heavily accented English, Rifat replied ‘up the fuel harm.’

It was time to leave. I got up and squeezed Rifat’s hand and waved him goodbye.

That was the last time I saw Rifat in hospital. My brother, now fully recovered, was discharged the next morning whilst I was at school. My mother said that the nurses had told her that Rifat was now well enough to leave hospital, and that I was not to worry, because he would be ‘well cared for’.

……………….


The envelope was typewritten. It clearly displayed my name and full address. I pulled out two VIP tickets for the last game of the season, Fulham versus Brentford. There was also a compliment slip that bore the Fulham FC logo alongside a handwritten, ‘Happy Sixteenth, Beth, we hope you enjoy your day.’

Now, I’d lost my way a bit with football over the past couple of years. You know, music, boys, clothes, and of course GCSEs had taken over large parts of my life. However, if anyone asked which team I supported, I always said without hesitation, ‘Fulham’.

I questioned both my brother and mother about these two unexpected tickets and apparent birthday present. They claimed to know nothing about them. I suspected that they were lying, their mouths protested innocence, but their eyes twinkled. 

Anyway, I went along with it.

My brother came with me. We were ushered into our box and offered tea and biscuits. Then a smartly dressed man wearing a Fulham necktie handed over the team sheet. I glanced down the names; there were only a few I recognised. I noticed that my brother was watching me intently as I scanned the list of players. He nudged me, saying ‘here’s one to look out for, just eighteen, making his debut, one for the future.’

I just nodded. I supposed the manager was giving him a run out as it was the last game of the season and neither side could go up or down.

The crowd burst into life as the players came out onto the pitch. Curiously, my brother nudged me a second time, whispering, ‘look at number twenty-one, recognise anything?’ 

Shock. Horror. No way. It can’t be. I looked at the team sheet again. Next to number twenty-one was ‘R. Saman’. I stared out at the pitch, the players had lined up to shake hands and there, standing third from the left, in a white Fulham shirt, were the unmistakable features of Rifat, the boy in the bed. 

My brother looked across at me. He whispered again, ‘yes it was him who sent you the tickets, he wants to meet you afterwards, he says he wants to say thank you’.

Fulham won one nil.


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