To Glimpse a Butterfly
Tue, 05 Jan 2016
She didn’t look old; not like everyone else there – my Nan, for instance. Mum and I visited most every night. The nursing home reeked of boiled-to-death cabbage and stale piss, but the staff were nice and cared for my nan well.
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 feel about it, or so I perceived, with an air of musk and spice...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 portly bespectacled gentlemen with Brylcreemed hair and handlebar moustaches, plus a varying assortment of young ladies sporting ostrich feather-trimmed hats. Without exception each looked as if there had been a bad smell in the room, and in the hinterland, either an aspidistra or a palm tree.
That very first time I glimpsed her, lying on those starched, white sheets – an emerald, paisley shawl, gold fringed, covering her wasted shoulders, she’d somehow intrigued me. Catching sight of me she beckons...her hand, reminiscent of a butterfly’s wing; the sun 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 timbre and tone like spring water tripping – fair giggling over stones.
“Hello,” she began, 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 foggiest who they all are, or were, should I say,, but it stops one feeling lonely; a kind of ‘virtual’ family, if you like. Incidentally,” she added, “my friends call me Fay.”
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 had a penchant for 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 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.
Day on day 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 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 Fay’s room.
Her door was, uncharacteristically, 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 time I’d read the final chapter.
Her eyelids flicker. She stretches out her hand, palm upwards. I take 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 long. Do you understand? I need for you to finish the book, though. It would mean much; more than you could know.”
I didn’t understand though; 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. Tears sting behind my eyes and I apologise...make out I’m coming down with Mum’s cold. She instructs 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, almost as if she reads my mind.
“Come close, child, and no – I’m not frightened, at least not of death or of dying...but I am – of living.”
The following evening, en route to her room a nurse breaks it to me she had passed away in the small hours of the morning...telling me she had left something in her room she wanted me to have.
The room – dimly lit by a corridor light alone– the bed stripped bare, but on the windowsill a small table-lamp; one of those pseudo oil lamps – harking back to days gone by, and I press the switch. The light flicks and I assume the bulb is on its way out, but on looking closer, a tiny moth is imprisoned inside the small glass dome.
I gingerly remove it... afraid of crushing it, cupping the creature in my hands before opening the window...setting it free to the chill night air.
On the bedside table – her precious copy of Jude the Obscure – tucked inside, a small slip of paper with my name, handwritten, on it, marking a page with two lines of text underlined in red biro.
The net curtains fidget in the breeze, catching my eye, and on the window pane – a tiny moth, on the outside looking in...wings as green as her paisley shawl.
'Be a good boy, remember. And be kind to animals and birds...and read all you can...'
I tap on the glass.