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The Blackberry Bushes

Henry stepped off the bus and walked through the hospital's peace garden and its well-ordered rose bushes towards the main entrance where a couple of patients were sitting on a bench smoking cigarettes. He made his way past the reception desk that twinkled with tiny white snowdrop lights; past the cheery Christmas tree, dressed in red tinsel and silver balls; and past the baby Jesus laying in his crib, to the storeroom, where he loaded his contraband onto the cart.

With his trolley full, Henry was ready to do his job, or the nearest thing he had to a job. For two years since he'd left the camp, he had written letters, made phone calls, and filled out forms. People said the jobs had gone, or we don't think your right for this post, or we're sorry but we've had hundreds of applications. Mostly, they said nothing. He wasn't wanted in this country. But as a volunteer in the hospital, he could serve and he could belong.

Henry pushed the trolley toward his territory, unsure of what he might encounter today. That at least, he was used to. On this ward, patients could have whatever they liked any day of the year: chocolate, cola, even whisky. They could have as much sugar, fat, and alcohol as their hearts desired. He had it all stacked on his trolley for their delight. When you are dying, the usual rules don't apply.

He wheeled the cart along the corridor that formed the left side of a quadrangle, aiming to complete the walk around the square in three hours and visit each of its twenty rooms; odd numbers on the left, even numbers to the right. Each patient had a room of their own in this purpose-built facility. He alternated the direction he took from week to week because, if he was busy, he might not make it to the final room before his shift ended. On other days he was finished well before his allotted time. It all depended on the conversations. Or the number of smokers who asked to be wheeled outside.

Between room numbers 10 and 11 a balcony offered a view of the hospital's peace garden, and while smoking was not encouraged, he was allowed to assist patients onto the balcony for a cigarette if they asked. He pulled on a smile as he prepared to meet the residents. Welcome to palliative care.

Room number 1. Mr. James was asleep. Room number 2. Mrs. Grey was screened off from view. He didn't know why, and he wasn't going to ask. Room number 3. The nameless new patient had visitors; grieving family perhaps. They were best left undisturbed. It could be one of those quiet days.

Henry wheeled his little shop of worldly pleasures into room 4. Toby was propped up against two giant hospital pillows. He hadn't met Toby before, nothing unusual there, patients came and went with disconcerting speed. The television hanging from the ceiling over Toby's bed was showing international football, though Toby wasn't watching, he was staring out of the window. Henry glanced at the notes by the foot of his bed. At 23, Toby had stage 4 testicular cancer. No amount of sweet treats or alcohol would fix that. He wheeled his trolley up to the side of the bed.

'Good afternoon, Toby. Is there anything I can get you?'

Toby turned his head and looked at him.

'A life,' he said.

'From the trolley?'

Toby shook his head. 'It's so fucking unfair.'

He sat in the uncomfortable plastic chair beside the bed in case Toby wanted to talk. Toby began to cry, quietly and gently. Henry touched his hand. Toby waved him away.

'Leave me alone, please.'

Henry stopped to read the board outside room 5. Grace Gardiner, 88. A new patient. He peered into the room. She was lying flat out on the bed with her eyes shut and her arms laid straight down her sides. He could not tell if she was asleep, immobile, or God forbid, passed away. He didn't want to be the one to have found her dead. Not on her first day. He pushed the trolley slowly into the room until he reached her bedside. She opened her eyes and looked at him.

'Oh, hello dear,' she whispered. 'Who are you?'

'I'm Henry. I volunteer on the ward. Would you like a drink or a nibble from our cart?'

'A drink of water, please. If possible. With maybe a dash of blackcurrant cordial, if you have it.'

He glanced at the wall behind her head. There was nothing to say that she was nil by mouth.

'Of course,' he said.

He poured a little purple cordial into a glass and added the water.

'Can I help you sit up?'

'If you could, dear.'

He slipped his arms around her fragile body and prepared to slide her up the bed with a feather-light touch. He feared she might crumble and break; a tiny Thumbelina figure reduced to skin and bones, her flesh greying and hanging loose on her brittle skeleton. When she was propped against the bedhead he placed an extra pillow behind her neck to make her comfortable and held the glass to her lips.

'Thank you,' she said. 'Is Henry your real name?'

'Oh, yes,' he said. 'Henry Tong.'

'I am dying,' she said. 'I haven't long left now.'

'Yes,' he said.

'They say that my heart will give up on me any time soon. I don't mind. It's okay. I've lived a good life. My sister won't accept it. But I do. I told her, I am ready. No tears and no regrets.'

'You're brave.'

'I've had a good life. I travelled all around the world you know. There is hardly a country I've not been to.'

He sat down by her bed and leant in towards her. She wanted to talk.

'Oh, really,' he said. 'Where've you been?'

'Yes. I was cabin crew for forty years before I retired. I flew everywhere. Japan, Singapore, Italy, Australia, England, South Africa. You name it. I bet you I've been there. Come on. Think of somewhere I might not have been.

'Brazil,' he said.

She reached out her hand and laid it over his. Her hand felt bony and frail.

'Oh, my dear, too easy. I have been to Rio many times. Try again.'

'OK. Now let me think. San Marino.'

'Hah, hah! Good try young man. I am not sure if that counts as a country. Isn't it just a principality or something? Anyway, it doesn't matter. I've been there. I was in Milan and took a trip to San Marino. I loved Italy. So exciting. So romantic. Florence was my favourite city. Such beauty on display. The Uffizi Gallery, the city Dome, the Ponte Vecchio, all that magnificent Renaissance Art. Quite sublime. Have you been?'

'I'm afraid not.'

His cheeks warmed. He had never been anywhere other than his home and this land. And he had nothing to say about Western art and architecture.

'Go on. Try again.'

'How about Pyongyang?'

'Oh, well done. You have got me there, Sir Henry. I have been to the South, but not the North. And I won't make it now. Never mind. You can't do everything. I've had a good life. I enjoyed flying with the cabin crew. I didn't want to retire actually, but it was kind of suggested to me that I should if you know what I mean.'

'Oh, I'm sorry.'

'Yes, I have been retired many years now. I enjoyed my job. I miss it. I never married or had children, so I guess that was my life. But still, it was a good one.'

'You never married?'

'No. I never met the right man. There was whispering you know. Some people said I was a lesbian, but I wasn't. I just never met a man that I wanted to marry. In fact, I didn't really meet any men I was comfortable with. Not in that way you understand. I had men friends but not… you know, not like that. I wasn't attracted to women, but I couldn't get close to men either. Something happened you see.'

'Something happened?'

'Yes, in the blackberry bushes,' she said, her voice calm and steady.

'Something in the blackberry bushes?'

She picked some fluff from the bed cover before she glanced at him and continued.

'Yes, a long time ago. I was coming home from school, I was twelve, nearly thirteen, and I had to walk along a bushy laneway and then across the park to get home. I did it every day and so I didn't give it a second thought. Anyway, I was on my own that day because my friend Emily, who I usually walked home with, had hockey after school. I was nearly at the park when a man grabbed me from behind and dragged me behind the blackberry bushes. I didn't know what was happening. I didn't know who he was and I couldn't do anything to stop it. And when it was over I just went home and cried in my bedroom. I didn't tell my parents. I was too ashamed. And you have to remember, my dear, that in those days we didn't know anything about that sort of thing. At least I didn't. My mother never said much to me about it. I had no idea men did that sort of thing. I was totally in shock when it happened, but I couldn't speak about it to my mother, or to the police, or anyone. Besides, the police were men and I didn't really understand why I should tell them. I mean, I knew what had happened was wrong. That he had done wrong. But still, I felt that somehow it was my fault and I didn't want anyone to know. I have kept it a secret all my life. I have never told anyone, until today.'

He touched her delicate hand and squeezed it gently. Her butterfly skin rippled under his fingers as if it might detach itself from her body.

'I'm so sorry,' he said.

'Oh, but never mind dear. I've had a good life in the cabin crew. I travelled the world you know. I bet you can't name a country that I haven't been to. I will die soon, but that's alright. I'm ready now.'

'You're ready.'

'Yes, my dear, I'm ready. My sister won't accept it, but I do. She won't visit me here. She said that it scares her. Makes her think she might be next. But we are all next, aren't we? I told her, it's okay. I've had my time. I don't know what happens when you die, but I don't really believe in God. Do you?'

'Not anymore.'

'Once?'

'My parents were Christians. But after the things I've seen.'

'Well, anyway, I don't. So that's that. I don't mind dying. I just hope I don't suffer too much. I am a bit afraid of pain you see.'

'You are in the right place. You will be peaceful. They won't let you suffer.'

'Well, anyway, I've had a good life. I suppose I might have liked to have had children. Yes, I think I would've liked to have had a baby to have and to hold. But there we go, I didn't, and you can't have everything can you?'

She paused as if to gather her thoughts and then she squeezed his hand.

'I think I might need to sleep now, young man. I'm a bit tired. But thank you for listening to me, Henry. And please do come and see me again, won't you? It's been lovely. Will you be here tomorrow?'

'I'm afraid not Grace. I only come once a week. But I'll be here again next Wednesday and I will definitely come and see you.'

She smiled at him and slid down the bed until she was lying flat on her back.

'Goodbye then, my dear,' she said as she closed her eyes.

'Goodbye, Grace.'

Henry sat with her for a few minutes until she fell asleep. Her chest rose a centimetre or two, and then fell again. A lifetime passed before her lungs filled once more and she continued. He didn't want to talk to anyone else now and so he wheeled the trolley out of the room with as much care as he could muster before returning it to the storeroom, where he sat for half an hour. He had been blessed by her. Privileged to hear her story. Why hadn't he asked her if she had flown to South Sudan? His homeland if no longer his home. He had tales to tell. He had hidden in bushes and seen children die and women raped. He could tell stories if anyone ever enquired.

A week later he called in at the shops on his way to the hospital. He rummaged through the clothes and the books in the charity store without success. She couldn't read anymore and she didn't need new clothes. He didn't know her taste in music and she had no need for household goods. Whatever could he get her? After half an hour of searching, he stumbled across the very thing at the back of the dusty shop: an audiobook: The History of Renaissance Art. Second hand of course, though he was sure that she would like it.

Henry skipped across the road from the bus stop and into the hospital. It was hot as hell outside, but it would be mercifully cool on the ward. He loaded up the trolley with its goodies and made straight for room 5, impatient to give her the Christmas present he had lovingly wrapped in golden paper. He stood outside her room and read the nameplate.

Educator, author of 7 non-fiction books. Cultivates veggies, tends chickens. Writing his second novel after Faber Academy course & Varuna scholarship.