To Glimpse a Butterfly
She didn’t look old; not like everyone else there –my Nan, for instance. Mum and I visited every week. The nursing home reeked of boiled-to-death cabbage and stale piss.
Her door was ajar. Being an inquisitive twelve-year old, I peeked around it one day, bored to tears as I was; hard going – conducting a conversation with Nan who’d been away with the fairies for years. I’d grown up with her eccentric ways, so it didn’t make me sad. Mum was, and cried each time we left. Felt guilty, she confided, but when Nan became incontinent, she couldn’t cope any more.
This lady was different though. Her room had an oriental air about it, or so I perceived it to be; musky and spicy it smelt, which, as I soon discovered, was down to her beloved incense which she lit whenever the staff chose to turn a blind eye.
The walls were lined with sepia photographs of old-fashioned looking gentlemen with Brylcreemed hair and handlebar moustaches. There were ladies of varying shapes and sizes wearing feather-trimmed hats and all with turned up noses as if there had been a bad smell in the room. In the background, invariably was a potted plant or maybe a palm-tree.
That very first time I glimpsed her, lying on those starched, white sheets – an emerald- green, gold-fringed shawl around her wasted shoulders, I was captivated. Just something about her I found fascinating. She caught sight of me and beckoned I should come in; her hand reminiscent of a butterfly’s wing; a cabbage-white, perhaps. The sun was streaming through a window behind her bed and I fancied the light shone right through it; translucent – practically luminescent. Skin – paper-thin, blue veined and of such apparent fragility, I feared one mere breath might blow it away.
I moved closer – closing the door behind me. Her fingers trembled, momentarily – then, fell limp. I assumed she’d drifted back to sleep and started tip-toeing away...until she spoke; her voice, soft, lilting with an accent I couldn’t discern.
“Hello,” she said, smiling. “Please … don’t go, I’d love you to read to me, if you would be so kind. It relaxes me. Oh, and don’t worry if I close my eyes. I shall still hear you...it’s just, sometimes it’s an effort to keep them open. So much so, it hurts... if you can imagine that? I can see my old photographs intrigue you. Discovered them in my attic – years ago now. Not the slightest idea of their identities, but it stops one from feeling lonely; a kind of ‘virtual’ family, if you like. Incidentally,” she added, “my friends call me Bunny.”
I said I’d be delighted to read to her and enquired if she had something specific in mind. She pointed to a book on her bedside table.
“I’ve always adored Thomas Hardy,” she explained, a vague smile flirting with her lips. Jude the Obscure, my favourite. Are you familiar with it? Do they study such books as these in schools these days?”
By some strange coincidence, I related, I had recently begun studying this very book. and she bid me pull up a chair. I began to read – hesitantly at first, but my inadequate attempt at a Wessex dialect soon broke the ice. She found me amusing and thanked me for making her laugh; something she’d not done in a long time.
Week on week, I started a new chapter – even found myself anticipating my visits with great excitement...Until one particular Wednesday afternoon, when I had come on my own as Mum had a heavy cold.
As soon as I arrived, I sensed something amiss. Slipping by the nurse on the reception desk (some stupid rule of theirs, ‘Children not admitted unless accompanied by an adult’) and checked on Nan. She was fine, or as fine as she’d ever be and then bounded along the maze of corridors to Bunny’s room.
Her door was shut; it was never shut. Perhaps the wind had caught it. I knocked, to no response. Cautiously, I opened it and found her propped up in bed; behind her head, pillows and cushions and still more pillows; her breathing – laboured and rasping. She appeared to be sleeping, but I recalled her words and spoke, regardless. Said, maybe she was too tired for me to read today, but next week I’d read the final chapter.
Her eyelids flutter. She stretches out her hand, palm upwards. I hold it; cup it gently in mine, careful not to crush it.
“Read to me, dear – just read. Please,” she says with such urgency in her voice, it catches me unawares. I pull back.
“I don’t have that long. Do you understand? I need for you to finish the book, though. It would mean much; more than you could know.”
To a child, death is inconceivable. In my worst nightmares it would manifest itself as a ferocious, flesh-gorging beast and in my wildly beating, oh, so young heart, I sensed death was breathing down her neck waiting to pounce.
I swallow – hard and begin reading, trying to keep my concentration, but for some reason, a sentence from the first chapter keeps repeating itself, over and over in my head – taking over my mind, almost...
‘Be a good boy – remember. And be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can,” Thomas Hardy’s immortal words.
Tears sting my eyes and I apologise...make out I have a slight cold. She tells me to pour myself a glass of water. I struggle for words...for the right words; for any words. So much I want – need desperately to know...to understand.
Again, there is that wry smile flirting with her lips. Instinctively she knows what is on the tip of my tongue.
“Come close, child, and no – I’m not frightened, at least not of death or of dying...but I am scared shitless of living.”