by Andrew Foote
Another nurse led me through to a changing room and selected a light blue cotton jacket and a pair of trousers.
"Hold the trousers up against you. I need to make sure they're not too long. We can't have you tripping over!"
Deciding that they were fit for purpose, she told me to strip down to my underwear and socks and put them on then handed me a pair of elasticated paper foot covers and a paper cap.
"Make sure as much of your hair as possible is under the cap and there's one other thing. Each time you leave Justin's room, throw away the cap and foot covers and when you go back in, get yourself some fresh ones. Never use the same ones twice. Here's a face mask. Never remove it inside the room, okay?"
"Yes. I understand. Do I have to change the face mask each visit as well?"
"It's a good idea to but not essential so if you forget, it isn't the end of the world!
Come on. Let's go and see Justin. There are one or two other thing I need to explain."
We walked through a door that took us down a corridor. "All these side wards and this corridor are what we call 'clean rooms'. They are specially cleaned twice a day, the air if filtered for dust particles and so far as we are able, micro-organisms, germs to you and I so it's mask on before you come through."
We stopped outside one of the rooms and I noticed it was Room 7.
"Is this his room?"
"Yes Alexis. Why? Is there a problem?
"No! It's really good actually!"
"Number seven. He always said it was his lucky number!"
"Pure coincidence I can assure you but now we know, I'll tell Sister so we can try and keep him here. How do you feel about seeing him Alexis? Scared? Nervous maybe?"
"Anxious. I don't know what to expect."
"Well, to you he might look a bit pasty-faced and possibly he's lost weight since you last saw him but otherwise he'll look much the same. He is being fed intravenously so there's a tube that runs up his nose and into his tummy and also he's on a saline drip to keep him hydrated. He's quite lucky really! He's being monitored by one of the most modern pieces of technology in the world. It constantly checks his heartbeat and body temperature and alerts us to any problems he might have. It's only one of twelve in the country and it saves us from constantly disturbing him. We bathe him and wash his hair daily to keep him fresh so he's as comfortable as we can make him."
"What differences in him have you noticed since he was admitted?"
The nurse laughed. "Are you sure you're not a doctor? You do ask some very intelligent questions? His body temperature for one. It should be normalised by tomorrow morning and secondly his pulse is much stronger but still a touch slow but they're all encouraging signs. Do you want to go in now or is there anything else you need to know?"
"Just one other thing? The Doc said it might be a good idea if I read to him. Do the books have to be sterilised?"
"Good grief! Now that is a good question and the honest answer is, I haven't got a clue! I'll go and find out just as soon as you're settled."
She led me into the room but she stopped me going directly over to Jus.
"As soon as you enter this room, you wash your hands and face at this hand basin. You turn on the water by using your elbow and use the antibacterial soap provided. Dry yourself of these sterile paper towels. Let me see you do it."
I did as I'd been instructed and she seemed satisfied.
"Okay. You can go and say hello to Justin now. He's not made of glass so if you want to give him a hug then you go ahead. You won't break him! I'll go and find out about your book question shall I? I'll leave you two together for a while and if you need us or if there's a problem, see that red button? Press it!"
Jus didn't look that different, pale maybe but otherwise he might well have been back on the boat fast asleep. Almost I expected him to open his eyes and tell me he was only joking and that actually he was fine.
I bent over him and being careful of his feeding tube, resting my cheek against his.
"Fucking-hell Jus? I mean what were you thinking of! Sorry. Not important. I've got you back and once you're better, you're not allowed out of my sight, got it, you beautiful, wonderful person? I just want to say sorry for being so stupid. I should've guessed where you would be headed but I guess I was panicking and couldn't think straight. Can you forgive me? Hey! I was a near neighbour of yours for the last couple of nights? I was in the children's ward because I hadn't been drinking enough fluids! Can you believe that?! My nurse was really sweet though. Her name was Patricia and we had a real laugh so if it's okay with you, I'll maybe go and see her, tell her how you're doing and stuff. Oh yeah, she also guessed we were like, together! Really embarrassing at the time but I didn't deny you 'cos I love you so much it hurts!"
I never noticed her standing in the doorway but the nurse had returned mid-speech.
"I never knew. No wonder you are so worried Alexis? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to eavesdrop but………"
"It's okay. I don't care who knows anymore. These last couple of three days have driven me past that point. I might be young but I've come to realise that there's more to life and happiness than towing the party line. If what you feel inside is genuine and honest then you have a duty to go with it. Jus did, that's how come he's here. I now have a commitment towards him and I will not shy away from it."
"Do your parents know?"
"Yes and they're cool with it."
"I cannot imagine Justin's Grandparents approve though."
"They're fine with it. They know we're committed to each other, it's his Mum, mainly his Dad who's the major problem. He's really antagonistic!"
Day two I discovered that everything that entered the room had to be sterilised, books included but I was given a copy of Jane Austin's 'Pride and Prejudice' which seemed apt enough so I set about reading to him.
I tried to think back to what he'd said regarding the books he had to study at school but I honestly couldn't recall if this had been one of them but so far this was all we had so if it was, well he'd just have to stomach it a second time around.
It took three days for me to wade my way through it. Actually it was extremely well written and I could understand why it had become a classic novel but honestly! It wasn't my idea of a good read so I was mightily relieved when the nurse came through on day four and handed me a pile of Tom Sharpe books that my Mum had brought in.
Now these were more like it! They were funny to the point of being hilarious and I had read them countless times so I was even able to put on accents and voices mimicking the characters.
Shortly before lunch, Jus's doctor came into the room.
"Do you need me to leave Doc?"
"No Alexis. You carry on. Pretend I'm not here."
I carried on reading, putting on stupid voices and so on, even the doctor was laughing quietly to himself but then after about fifteen minutes he interrupted me.
"When you go for your lunch, will you come and find me? There's something you should know."
"Is…….is everything okay Doc?"
He smiled broadly, raised his eyebrows and nodded his head.
"Yes. More than okay but I'll explain later."
At twelve-thirty the cleaners came in which was my cue to go and have a bite to eat but before heading to the canteen I searched out the doctor.
"Hello Alexis. Come through to my office, there's something interesting I want to tell you.
Do you recall me telling you that there is a school of thought that believes that some coma patients can make out and distinguish between voices? Well I was a bit sceptical but not anymore.
Since first thing this morning we have been monitoring Justin's responses very closely and we discovered something very interesting and also very encouraging.
You see when any of the medical team go into his room and talk either to each other or to him, there's little or no discernable response, even when he was being washed and changed there was none however when you went in this morning and gave him a cuddle? Well his heart rate shot up and whilst you were reading to him, a similar sort of thing was happening all the time and especially when you got to a funny part of the story, his reaction was extraordinary, he especially likes your portrayal of that character……..what's his name again…….Mango? Yes Mango!
What I'm saying is, not only does he realise there's someone in the room but he knows that someone is you and when you read to him, he's right there with you, understanding every word you say!"
"Oh wow. Really? He knows I'm with him?"
"There can be no doubting it and the best bit is, it serves to prove that his coma isn't as deep as we first feared and whist I'm not in the business of building up false expectations, I think I can safely say that, given time, we will get him back. It's pretty obvious that his mental faculties are in reasonable shape but of course we are still unable to tell how he will be physically but this is a major step in the right direction. Keep up the good work matey, you're doing a fine job!"
All of a sudden I wasn't hungry but the doctor urged me to get something inside me, cautioning against not looking after myself so once in the canteen, I handed over my voucher and pigged out on Cottage Pie, chips and fizzy water then made my way back up onto the ward, got changed into a monkey-suit and into Jus's room.
I gave him a big cuddle, all the time watching the monitor. He wasn't wrong! Jus's heartbeat increased quite dramatically!"
"Hey boyfriend? What's cooking then! Don't give me all that bullshit that you can't hear me 'cos I know you can! Did I tell you just how much you mean to me? I love you, every inch of you, especially your little feet ha-ha!"
I watched the monitor as Jus's heartbeat sky rocketed to a new high. "Don't laugh at me? It isn't polite! Jus? You've got to try and fight this sleep thing of yours. I want you back, I need you back so give it all you've got and then some.
Okay, you have my instructions so now it's back to the story!"
I was going to say that the days and weeks that followed dragged but that wasn't the case at all.
We had all of us worked out a routine. I would take a bus from Mapledurham at seven in the morning by which time Jus would've been bathed and his room cleaned then at nine o'clock either my Mum or Dad would join me for my studies which took place in Jus's room so he could hear what was going on, almost to be a part of it then after lunch, I'd take a break while Sir George and Lady Eleanor visited then at about three in the afternoon I'd go back and carry on reading or just chat to him. Then at seven in the evening I'd give him a cuddle and say good-bye and catch a bus back to Mapledurham, supper and bed.
Midway through week three, Jus had another visitor. A nurse popped her head around the door and spoke to my Mum.
"Kaz? Justin's Mother is here to see him but I need you to do us a favour. We have an emergency coming in so we can't spare the time to show her the ropes, getting changed and ready for the ward so I wondered if you……….."
"Yes of course. No problem." Then turning to me said "Carry on with what you're doing but then when Mrs Armstrong is ready we'll leave them alone together, maybe grab an early lunch, okay?"
Now I'd completely forgotten about Jus's Mum and Dad, I guess I was too tied up with my own involvement to think about it but the nurse hadn't made any mention of Mr Armstrong which I thought a bit odd but about fifteen minutes later Mrs Armstrong walked in through the door. I greeted her and shook her hand. She looked over in Jus's direction and I noticed tears in her eyes.
"Mrs Armstrong? I don't wish to appear rude but may I have a word with you out in the corridor?"
We walked outside and shut the door. Whether it was because we looked the same being dress identically but I felt it was almost as if we were equals and actually, I was a bit more equal than she. I was firmly in control!
"Look I know you're very upset but there's something you need to know before you see him. Mrs Armstrong, Justin might be comatose but he can hear and understand every word you say. What I'm trying to get at is, he needs your strength, not your tears. He needs to know you love him, sure but also he needs to hear positive and encouraging things, things that will give him the strength to fight whatever it is that's keeping him in this coma."
"Really? He can hear things, understand things?"
"I'll demonstrate when we go in. He reacts to people he knows and loves but not to any of the staff. Come on, I'll show you. Watch the heart monitor!"
We walked back into Jus's room and I went over to him and gave him a hug.
"Got a nice surprise for you sunbeam! Your Mum's here to see you!"
The monitor went crazy!
"Right. I'm going to leg it, find my Mum and grab an early lunch. I'll see ya later okay? Just mind your language in front of the lady please!"
I think he was laughing his head off inside because his heart rate sprang up alarmingly but then settled back down.
I left them to it and went off in search of my Mum. I found her talking to Dr James from the Children's ward.
"So Alexis. How are you felling? None the worse for wear I trust?"
"I'm all good thanks Doc. You were spot on about my legs though! They did feel a bit jelly-like."
"One of the side effects of dehydration but you're okay now?"
"Yeah fine thanks."
"Okay. I'll let you go and find some lunch. I hear the Macaroni Cheese is passably edible today!"
My stomach growled. Mum laughed!
"Now you're talking his language Doctor! That's an all-time favourite of his!"
"So how did Julia seem?"
"Oh, okay Mum. Upset but that's understandable but I did have a little word with her."
"Christ Alexis? What did you go saying to her now?"
"Hey! Nothing bad I promise! She looked tearful so I told her that Jus was conscious enough to be able to hear and understood what people were saying and so she should try to be positive around him as he needed to feel good not frightened or concerned."
"You sure that's all?"
"Sure I'm sure."
"Okay. It's only things are still up in the air and upsetting the apple cart is something we don't need."
"What do you mean by 'up in the air'? Surely they're not thinking about him going back to Down House? Shit Mum, we don't even know if he's going to make a full recovery yet? It's far too early to start talking about the future especially a future that might not even happen? What is it with these sodding Armstrong's anyway!"
"Listen to me Alexis. So far as I'm aware, nothing along those lines has even been discussed let alone decisions made and even so, I can't believe that after what he's gone through, they would even think about him returning. No my guess is that so long as he fully recovers or recovers sufficiently enough to be able to go back to school, they'll send him somewhere else."
"Well that's something at least but I'm telling you this. Any talk of Down House and you will wake one morning and 'Spook' will be long gone and Jus and I with her. We will head onto the canal system and if we can get as far as Braunston, we can go north, south, east or west and no one will ever find us."
"I do believe you'd try that as well!"
"Don't just believe it Mum, know it!"
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