The Waiting Game
Ruth, an excerpt from the book
by Chantal Ashby Heaven
Every picture tells a story; every story carries a hundred interpretations. The Waiting Game is the story of three very different women, born in three very different epochs with unique challenges and outcomes that reflect the worlds they live in. It is also the story of three very different men, born in three different epochs with challenges and outcomes that reflect the worlds they live in. And at the heart of it all lies seventeen-year-old Holly - static - in a coma - beyond reach. Or is she?
What is a coma? What is a minimally conscious state? How can one differentiate between a conscious thinking state and an unconscious dream-like state? What is the difference between reality and fiction?
This story, like all good stories, is rooted in fact; and the facts of this particular story, the Second World War, the Korean War, the Thatcherite Eighties and the Blaire Nineties, all have their place in history. Yet the question remains eternal: to what degree should you wear your heart on your sleeve?
All proceeds from the sale of this book go to a subject very close to Chantal's heart and the women pictured on the front-cover: the cancer charity, Penny Brohn UK.
Here is a chapter excerpted from The Waiting Game...
Neon lights flashed the date from the front of the East-gate Shopping Centre: 1-06-2004. Ruth stopped in her tracks and stared at the flickering orange lights mesmerised.
Was it really a year since Holly’s accident? Could it truly be that long? It only seemed like yesterday that the house reverberated to the sound of Holly’s music as he fingers flew up and down the neck of her cello at break-neck speed.
Ruth stepped off the pavement still lost in thought and started to cross the Great Western Road. The angry blast of a car horn; the window of a black BMW hissed open menacingly.
“What the hell do you think you’re playing at woman?” a bald man in an Oxford shirt demanded from behind the anonymity of his designer sunglasses.
Ruth fixed the irate owner of the BMW with her goldfish eyes, wondering whether to apologise or to lock horns with him.
“You could have got us both killed,” the man shouted at her angrily. A globule of his saliva landed on the tarmac.
Ruth walked calmly across the road, deciding against explaining herself. The man stared after her uncomprehendingly. Then he blasted on down the road, his rear tyre narrowly missing the kerb.
A line of elegant silver-grey poplar trees delineated the boundary of Gloucester General Hospital. It was a walk she made three days per week, month in, month out, whatever the weather. She walked on automatic pilot. She thought on automatic pilot. She breathed the traffic fumes on automatic pilot.
At the end of the Great Western Road, she paused to remove a pea-sized grey pebble from the inside of her sandal. Then she entered the hospital grounds and headed diagonally across the rippling wet grass, back on familiar territory.
Four crumbling Nissan huts huddled together behind a row of mature cherry trees. Post-war relics, the huts housed the Mental Health Unit.
Ruth slowed down, wishing that she did not know what lay behind those stark hospital windows but twenty years in General Practice had taught her more than she wanted to know about the brittle nature of the nation’s health.
Teenage girls bitten by anorexia, old women with dementia and middle-aged men in crisis: they were all there, out of sight, out of mind.
“Hi there beautiful, don’t look so miserable,” a workman called out to her from behind a pile of builder’s rubble. “It’s not the end of the world.”
Ruth met the builder’s eye and smiled graciously. Then she walked briskly on, her black hair swept up into a neat chignon, her long white skirt catching the sun’s rays. She did not think that she was beautiful - attractive, perhaps, in an unconventional way but not beautiful. Besides, what was beauty but an image caught in time, sometimes concave, sometimes convex; inaccurate, debateable and forever in flux?
On the matter of height, she was far less philosophical. As a child she had hated being tall. Her class-mates used to rib her about it no end. For years she had longed to lop five inches off her calves and sink into the ground unnoticed.
However now that she was approaching middle-age, she quite liked the notion of being tall. She had learnt how to look people in the eye, rather than shifting her weight from one foot to the other, her shoulders hunched. This new-found self-confidence never ceased to amaze her. She even liked the tiny wrinkles about her eyes - soft almond-eyes, serious but sensual; eyes that had stopped Tom in his tracks the day they first met.
The Brutalist 1960’s hospital loomed into view. She bounded up the blunt concrete steps, two steps at a time and burst through the glass doors like an exploding star.
She stopped dead in her tracks. An invisible stupor hung in the air: a thick heavy torpor that threatened to suffocate anything remotely alive. The patients sat stiffly in rows. Illness was a serious business. People had travelled a long way to visit the Consultant, still a sort of Demi-God in these parts, respected but distrusted at one and the same time.
Suddenly Ruth spotted Haydn perched on the edge of his seat in his Sunday best, his hair neatly parted down the middle. It was the first time she had seen him wearing a suit.
The elderly farmer waited patiently, turning his beret over and over again in his rough calloused hands; hands that had spent the best part of sixty years working the land.
“Haydn, how are you? I’m glad you haven’t had to wait too long for your referral.”
Haydn’s hands froze in the act of turning the beret in his hands. His neatly clipped finger-nails dug deep into the fibres of the wool seeking succour.
“I didn’t expect to see you here Doctor. I didn’t know you worked here.”
“I don’t normally. I’m visiting my daughter Holly.”
“Ah Holly, yes, of course,” Haydn murmured. “If you don’t mind doctor but I’d like to be on my own.”
Ruth’s jaw set rigid. She had no business intruding upon Haydn’s private thoughts. She darted diagonally across the waiting room headed towards the anonymity of the temporary partition wall. A large sign said ‘NO ENTRY.’ She glanced briefly over her shoulder and squeezed through a gap in the chipboard, deciding to take a short-cut to Holly’s room.
Ruth lengthened her stride. The antiseptic floor-tiles echoed to the sound of her footsteps. She came to a halt before Room 1918 and rapped twice. It just seemed the right thing to do - the one thing that she could do to honour Holly’s privacy. Then Ruth stepped swiftly inside Holly’s somnolent world.
A thin white cellulose blanket was draped over Holly’s boyish seventeen year old frame. Holly’s closed eyelids were shaped like large peony-petals. Her fine long hair was scraped back severely from her face to reveal a high forehead. The ends of her flaxen hair tumbled off the edge of the mattress in folds.
Two fine blue veins delineated Holly’s sepulchre-white temples. Her nostrils emitted warm currents of air as she breathed unaided. Transparent tubes from the saline feeding-drip encased her wrists like fluted glass bangles.
Ruth snatched a rare smile, re-living those carefree summer days when time was fluid and Holly danced on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, her slender wrists encircled with iridescent glass bangles, her laughter echoing on the summer breeze.
Holly’s ebullient laughter continued to echo in Ruth’s mind as she imagined Holly, aged ten, racing along the beach with Jack in hot pursuit. Ruth’s heart-beat quickened at the thought. Other memories rapidly tumbled forth in chaotic fashion…
There was Holly again, aged thirteen, leaping over the flames on Bonfire Night, ignoring the protestations of the local vicar, a man of thinning hair and failing wits, totally incapable of containing the rebellious spirit in his midst.
There was Holly aged six, roller-skating along the seafront with her eyes screwed tightly shut, daring herself not to fall over.
There was Holly perched on the end of Clevedon Pier, greedily tucking into a cone of pink candy-floss, a bracelet of ribbon sea-weed wrapped around her sandy wrist. Ruth eagerly leant forwards and smelt the ends of Holly’s hair, hoping to detect the aroma of crystallized candy but all she could detect was the bitter odour of cold-tar soap and hospital antiseptic.
A solitary tear trickled down Ruth’s left cheek. What did a year in a coma with no signs of a recovery mean? Was Holly in a Permanent Vegetative State? Or could Holly rally and make a full recovery?
Ruth sat down heavily on the hard plastic seat. Then she opened her handbag and took out a small green velvet package. She carefully unfolded the square of plush green velvet to reveal a delicate hour-glass, the size of a child’s hand. She placed the hour-glass on the bedside cabinet. Her pupils widened as she watched the grains of pure white sand spiral effortlessly through the fluted glass-neck. Light from the open window pierced the glass-prism producing iridescent colours. Ruth stared wistfully at the rainbow light.
Then she leant back in her chair and let her mind slip into neutral gear. If Holly could feel and hear nothing, then Ruth wanted to feel and hear nothing also. Empathy was Ruth’s aim and with empathy came sweet oblivion.
Is that you Mum? You’d feel so much better if you’d only talk to me. Please Mum, it won’t hurt you to talk. Honest. I’d love to hear all the latest gossip. Jack’s so Goddam serious. All he talks about is war in the Middle East or the chopping down of the world’s rainforests. Talk to me about something upbeat Mum! PLEASE! There must be something good going on in the outside world. It can’t be all doom and gloom. I refuse to believe it.
What do you think Mum? Mum? PLEASE TALK TO ME!
I guess that’s a ‘no’ then.
Half an hour passed. Ruth opened her eyes. Then she opened her handbag and took out a cream and red apple covered with a shiny film of wax. Ruth removed a handkerchief from her pocket and began to polish the apple, bringing it to a brilliant shine. Then she raised the apple to her mouth and sunk her teeth into its fibrous core. The flesh exploded on her tongue in a burst of zingy goodness! Juice spilled all over her splayed fingers.
Is that a Cox’s Orange Pippin Mum? It smells like a Cox’s Orange Pippin. Don’t forget to leave me the core. Put it on my pillow so that I can continue to smell its zingy flavour after you’ve gone.
Ruth finished the apple and wiped her mouth clean with a tissue. Then she placed the core on the bedside table as Holly had subliminally suggested. Ruth checked the hour-glass. Twenty-five more minutes to go… She leant back in her chair and shut her eyes once more.
Thanks for the apple core Mum! I love the smell of apples. Do you remember the time that Jack got caught scrumping apples in Haydn’s orchard? I’d only handed Jack the apples for a moment so that I could climb a pear tree. Luckily I spotted Haydn enter the orchard from the top of the tree and hid. But Jack didn’t see Haydn coming and got caught red-handed, the silly boy.
He should have dropped the pears and pretended that they were windfalls but instead he confessed everything. Do you remember how furious you were with him? Fortunately you never did find the pears I’d picked. They were delish.
The last of the grains of sand spiralled through the narrow glass neck and lay still at the base of the hour-glass. Ruth intuitively opened both eyes and stared numbly at Holly’s static features. She felt numb inside.
Then Ruth noticed a dead earwig lying on the edge of Holly’s mattress. She snapped up the offending earwig with her pincer-fingers. Then she marched across the room, opened the window and chucked the earwig outside.
Thanks for opening the window Mum! I can’t tell you how great it is to smell fresh air. Another bunch of Junior Doctors visited this morning. God they don’t half pong! I can’t figure out what’s worst - their deodorant, their armpits or their trainers.
Ruth filled her lungs with fresh air and then turned round, prepared to leave. It was only then that she noticed a brand-new poster stuck on the back of Holly’s door.
The notice read:
“Isolation Nursing. Please adhere to the following rules at all times. Filter masks and disposable plastic apron to be worn only when attending to the patient. Linen: place in black bags and seal with biohazard tape. Latex gloves: do not wear unless contaminated with secretions. Feeding tubes: insert as required. Hydration: maintain drip at designated equilibrium.”
A cold anger gripped Ruth. The black typeface made Holly sound like a machine that needed to be serviced, not a human-being made from flesh and blood. Ruth angrily ripped the offending poster from the door and screwed it up into a ball and tossed it into the waste-paper basket.
She grabbed the door-handle then halted half-way through opening the door. She clung to it like a field-mouse to a sheaf of corn, desperate for support. Her angry emotions crashed back and forth inside her like the blades of a combine-harvester bearing down on her. She let go of the handle and began to sob inwardly, her face a mask.
Mum! What is it? Mum, what’s wrong? I can tell something’s wrong. Mum, talk to me! Mum whatever has upset you - it’s just not worth it. You’re bigger than your problems Mum - much bigger. Don’t let them get the better of you.
Ruth glanced up at the tangle of asylum-green metal piping that straddled the ceiling like a pair of antlers and was reminded of a modern art installation. She half-expected the distinguished judges of the Turner Prize Committee to waltz into the room any moment and deliver Holly’s neatly made bed first prize. Then she took a sharp intake of breath and walked slowly back to Holly’s bedside.
The robotic Ruth resumed control. She picked up the miniature hour-glass, wrapped it up in the green velvet and slotted it back into the depths of her hand-bag. The metal teeth snapped shut. Then she stooped forward and plucked a perfunctory kiss from the centre of Holly’s forehead.
A blast of jasmine perfume wafted across Holly’s nostrils. Holly greedily imbibed the aroma, committing it to memory.
Hmm Jasmine! I love your perfume Mum.
A lone tear landed on Holly’s taut cheek.
It’s okay Mum. It’s okay to hurt. I just wish you’d talk to me. I could really do with your help - you have so much medical knowledge. If you’d only share a teeny bit of it with me then maybe I could figure out what’s wrong with me. Then we could both get the hell out of here! What do you think Mum?
A second tear landed on Holly’s starched pillow.
“Goodbye darling. I’m rooting for you,” Ruth stammered, choking on the words.
Holly’s heart exploded with joy.
Mum you spoke! I was beginning to think that you would never speak to me!
“Love you,” Ruth mumbled into his throat.
I love you too Mum! And you mustn’t be so hard on yourself. Being hard on yourself never works. It always comes back to bite you.
“You’re a bit of an anomaly according to Mr. Patel. I can’t figure out whether that’s good or bad,” she said a little uncertainly. “I’ve got to go now. Love you.”
Love you too Mum. Keep heart. It’s going to be okay. Trust me. It’s just a question of waiting and the waiting game isn’t over yet.
About the Author
Chantal Ashby Heaven was born in Rochford, England, to a French mother and English father. Her childhood years were spent by the seaside where oil pollution and the sight of rubbish regularly being washed up onto the shore featured highly in her earliest memories together with happier times spent on the London river barges. After a short spell spent as a campaigner for Keep Britain Tidy, Chantal began her career as an Abstractor at Reuters News Agency, writing simple head-lines and news 'abstracts' for text-line, an on-line news service. She started writing short stories and plays in her spare time and decided to quit journalism and train to be a Drama and History teacher at Bath University. She currently works as a theatre practitioner at the Merlin Theatre Frome and has written, produced and directed eighteen shows to date for the Children's Drama Group in addition to working as a Drama, History and English tutor.
Chantal Ashby Heaven's previous book, Jem and Coral
Read the Foreword