Juliet looked at Victor and realised that the look on her face must clearly indicate that she thought he was totally mad. She tried to gather as much politeness in her voice as she was able. “Thank you for watching over me while I have been recovering, but I am feeling much better and I really must be getting home”.
Juliet stood up confidently and surprised herself by striding purposefully towards the entrance of the coffee shop. Stepping through the foyer and then through the main automatic door, she took a deep breath of the early autumn evening air that was heavy with moisture from the day’s rain and carried in it the familiar welcome smell of turning foliage.
It wasn’t far home, Juliet walked slowly almost on autopilot, breathing the night air deeply. Not encountering anyone else on her journey allowed her to remain uninterrupted in her own thoughts. Victor was clearly deranged. She wondered whether she should report his behaviour to the hospital. He sat so calmly and smartly in the hospital coffee shop, probably bothering anyone who had the misfortune to sit close to him, with dramatic stories of their wellbeing. Juliet decided that it could be very upsetting for someone who was more nervous or stressed than she was. What could be his motive for doing this, she wondered.
Her parent’s house stood surrounded by it’s own garden and a brown fence that had been painted with preservative to give it that horrible unnatural orange tint. Juliet had been planning to repaint it in one of the new colours that were now available but the garden was big enough to make painting its boundary quite a daunting prospect. The house, designed and built in the late 1950’s by her maternal grandfather, was a red brick bungalow which had been on the outskirts of town when constructed but now sat surrounded by housing that had grown up steadily over the years since. The house sat low in the ground as if hunkered down waiting for a new threat of war that had been so fresh in the mind of its builder when he started. It had large windows to produce a light and airy interior but Juliet’s grandmother had chosen to plant large trees too close to the house which only served to make the house look like it was hiding amongst the trees and make the interior darker than intended. The garden was designed to be one large vegetable and fruit growing plot so that a family could be self sufficient. Juliet had often wondered whether it might be prudent to sell off a section of the garden but she hadn’t been able to part with any of it yet, there was still too strong a link with her mother. Juliet always felt rather sad that this house hadn’t seen a large family yet. It didn’t seem likely that it would with her living in it and she couldn’t imagine a time in the future when she might leave.
Juliet slid the key into the lock of the front door and turned it easily. Opening the door she stepped through the threshold into the hallway-that-time-forgot. In the years since her mother’s death Juliet had not found the impetus to change anything that her mother, in turn, had not found the motivation to change since her husband, Juliet’s father, had left the family home. Turning a key in a lock and opening the door was surely indicative of her tangibility, Juliet thought. Gazing at herself in the full length mirror set into a heavy old wardrobe just inside the door she remembered all the un-dead films she had watched and that vampires couldn’t see their own reflections. The dark wood wardrobe reminded Juliet of the Narnia books but she had yet to find a way out of the back of it even after the many hours she had spent searching as a child. The wardrobe had been a haven for Juliet as a child, the darkness within had never been a concern and she remembered spending a great deal of time sitting inside, although she couldn’t remember why.
The grandfather clock that stood beside the entrance to the kitchen gave a steady ticking sound which, she recalled, reverberated through the inside of the wardrobe. Maybe this was another element of the welcome ambience that Juliet had found inside. A steady routine sound coupled with the familiar smell of Juliet’s family on hats and scarves mixed with old dry wood, the soft touch of the outer clothing with the hardness of the wardrobe floor, the excitement of the possibility of an entrance to another world firing her imagination, Juliet could understand a child’s desire to spend time in the wardrobe, away from the unhappiness that was her family situation.
Juliet switched on the hallway light, walked into the kitchen and slipped her handbag from her shoulder hanging it on the back of one of the chairs placed around the old melamine topped kitchen table. The kitchen was like a flashback to the 1950’s. Everything still worked efficiently and it didn’t seem worth replacing equipment whose only shortcoming was that it was old-fashioned. Juliet’s fridge was a cream, five foot high bulky affair with the word “Fridgidaire” in iconic joined up metal letters attached to the front. The large metal handle needed a certain yank technique that Juliet was so used to she didn’t think about it. Inside was a small icebox compartment without a door, which Juliet only used occasionally for making ice.
Juliet reached into the fridge and removed the bowl of pasta that she had been saving as a meal for this evening. She had guessed correctly that she wouldn’t feel like cooking after a day in the hospital and she had grown up on meals of cold pasta. Her mother’s ability to cook had been very limited, even on good days. Her repertoire had consisted of pasta mixed with tinned tomatoes, pasta mixed with cheese sauce, and plain rice. As Juliet had grown older she had taken on the responsibility of cooking for herself and her mother, and had discovered the wide range of sauces for pasta and rice that had slowly become available in the local supermarket. She had then been able to experiment by adding a variety of vegetables, meats and cheeses.
Juliet ate the cold plain pasta with a fork, knowing this was why she was now so thin. She had lost all interest in concocting interesting meals with pasta or rice and had got back into a habit of eating it ungarnished. It would be easy to blame this new lack of interest on the death of her mother but Juliet knew that this wasn’t actually the case, she just wasn’t able to put her finger on the real reason why.
Juliet slipped easily into her evening routine. She switched on the news at 9 o’clock then switched the television off after the local news programme, marvelling at how little news there seemed to be. She had a shower and changed into pyjamas, picked up a book, read a few pages and then settled under the duvet to sleep.
Sleep came more easily than it usually did. Juliet habitually slept fitfully, dreaming of her childhood, her family, the difficult years when it was just the two of them, or one, if you only counted people who were present. Juliet sometimes felt that she had spent most of her childhood completely alone, even though she had been almost constantly in the company of her mother when she hadn’t been at school. Juliet’s recurring and frequent dream in which she was eventually shot by her mother often left her feeling exhausted and disturbed the following day.
However, when the sun peeked through the lightweight curtains informing her of another warm October day, Juliet was awake and refreshed, ready for a day at work. Her dream-free night had given her new energy and she looked forward to the day ahead for the first time in a long time.
Following breakfast, which consisted of tea and toast, Juliet opened the front door to leave for work, glancing at the grandfather clock in the hall, she was pleased to see that the hands showed half past eight. Perfect time to walk to work and be there for nine. The events of yesterday were a distant memory and she stood quietly behind the front door with her eyes closed, shrugging off the heavy history overcoat that weighed her down at home and composing herself into the persona that lived in the world outside, the part of her that was a calm, efficient, professional life.
“Hello again.” Victor stood at her open door looking as if he had been standing there for some time. He looked older than Juliet had thought yesterday. He was still dressed in the same dark grey suit of yesterday, with a light black overcoat for protection against the autumn cool air, giving him an air of respectability and probably making him look even older than his years. His full head of snowy white hair, perfectly groomed and covered with a rather out dated hat, and his clean-shaven face told Juliet that he hadn’t been sitting in the coffee shop, or standing at her front door, all night. Victor obviously had a home to go to and Julia felt rather exasperated that he wasn’t there now instead of standing in her doorway inevitably making her late for work.
“I don’t think you should go to work today Juliet” Victor stepped towards her blocking her way out of her own front door “You won’t enjoy it, may I suggest we go and visit you in the Intensive Care Unit?”
“Why should I not go to work? Will no one be able to see me? Will I be able to walk through walls?” Juliet couldn’t stop the sarcasm entering her voice and she knew as the words came out that Victor was expecting this reaction and was prepared.
“It isn’t the most pleasant of experiences and some people find it quite frightening.” It was clear that he was going to have to provide some proof before Juliet would do as he asked. “Why don’t you try and talk to the postman and see what happens?”
Juliet looked down the path, edged on both sides with strongly smelling marigold seed heads, to see her postman opening the gate. Juliet recognised the man, a small rotund chap, puffing up her garden path as he did every day. Some days Juliet met him on her way out to work and they passed the time of day, sometimes, if she was running a few minutes late she heard the welcome plop of junk mail falling through her letterbox onto the door mat. Juliet felt like her postman was an anchor of routine in her life. Someone she could rely on. Something that didn’t involve her giving anything in return for having this man check on her and her home every day.
“Good morning” Juliet greeted the man in a loud voice but he stopped abruptly at the doorway and looked nervously about him as if this was a change to the normal routine.
“Hello? Is anyone at home?” Looking past Juliet, the postman craned his neck as if trying to see into the house.
Juliet moved slightly so that she was standing directly in front of the postman but it was obvious that he couldn’t see her. She looked at Victor who gave a slight nod. He was right, it was quite frightening and she didn’t fancy forcing the issue so that he had to put his arm right through her or something macabre like that. The postman, as if reading Juliet’s mind suddenly lunged forward, giving her just enough time to back out of the way, and slammed the front door shut. He then took a plant catalogue out of his bag and posted it through the letterbox. “Must have blown open or something” the postman muttered then turned and started back down the path.
Juliet looked at Victor and made the decision that it was probably worth her while to hear what he had to say. The hospital was on the route to work anyway so she could walk there with Victor, and then walk on to work if her suspicions were correct and he was a lunatic, albeit with a very convincing air. If this turned out to be the case she could also make a complaint to the hospital.
Juliet could tell, as they walked in silence, more slowly than she would have liked, that Victor was considering how to open the conversation. It must be quite tricky to broach the subject of what might be regarded as “limbo” and she didn’t yet understand why he was prolonging the agony of putting himself through this with her. Why did he not choose someone in the hospital more susceptible to his story telling? Victor cleared his throat. “I’m sure you must have lots of questions and I will do my best to explain how this all works, but I suspect we may never understand why this sometimes happens when the body enters a coma.” He stopped momentarily, as if deciding on the best way to continue. “Your situation is unusual. When others find themselves in a similar situation they do not come to the hospital café. They often are allowed to wait with someone, a member of their family perhaps, who has recently died. If the medical intervention is unsuccessful their passing is much easier because they accept the fact that they must leave with their loved one. If the doctors are successful, the patient will often consider their period in a coma to be a dream so the experience leaves little consequence to the rest of their life.”
“You, however, do not have anyone that might be considered to be a loved one and that means that you must wait with me”
Juliet couldn’t help herself “Does that make you an angel?” the sarcasm was still difficult to hide.
“No Juliet” Victor didn’t seem to be in a frivolous mood this morning “Just someone who will look after you, whatever happens.”
Victor paused, took a breath and ventured, almost tentatively. “Sometimes it is a good use of this time to look back over your life” Juliet knew that Victor was getting at something specifically, he knew more about her life than he was letting on, and she suddenly realised that she would probably be in for a long day of having to tell him about all the things that had gone wrong in her life and for him to be asking the ‘and-how-does-that-make-you-feel?’ type question.
“What do you mean about me not having a loved one? My mother died two years ago. Does she not count?”
“For some reason, and I don’t know why, she doesn’t appear to be considered someone who is suitable to wait with you, no” Victor looked genuinely confused by this which Juliet thought was actually the most frightening thing that had happened over the last two days. She realised that she had become used to the expectation that Victor knew all the answers, and on this subject he clearly did not.
Juliet sighed, her suspicions about Victor’s mental stability were not easy to ignore and as an established self-preservation mechanism she reverted to her professional façade. She guessed that she wasn’t going to get out of this too easily, Victor was going to be following her about all day, she could tell, but she was damned if she was going to discuss her whole sorry life with this stranger.
“It might be that you’ll be that if you don’t” the slight smile on Victor’s face was unnerving.
“Well”, Juliet retorted “I won’t need to discuss anything if you know what I’m thinking anyway!” Juliet picked up the pace to something that she knew Victor would find difficult to manage in order to demonstrate her indignation and left him trailing behind, as she marched up to the hospital entrance.
Juliet walked through the foyer and up to the imposing wooden reception desk. “Please can you direct me to the Intensive Care Unit?” The smartly dressed receptionists with rather too perfectly coiffed hair, caused Juliet to wonder distractedly how much hairspray they used and whether to touch it would be like stroking one of those coconut husk door mats, sharp and stiff. Juliet wasn’t surprised that there was no response from either lady. One was on the telephone anyway but the other was looking straight at her.
“Can I help you, dear?” Juliet turned to see the volunteer in the green sweatshirt addressing her. He would have been a small man when he was younger but age had just subtly twisted his spine so that he looked slightly over his shoulder in order to look up at Juliet, and walked with a slight limp. Victor reached her side. “Hello Stanley, Julia is looking for ICU”
Stanley seemed pleased to have someone to talk to. “I saw you yesterday but you didn’t need any assistance then. It looks like you do today, follow me to the lift and I will get you to the right floor.” Juliet was intrigued that Stanley could see her and started to think, contrary to everything she had experienced today, that perhaps she wasn’t the ghost that Victor had led her to believe. Juliet gave Victor a triumphant look that he immediately and correctly interpreted “Stanley didn’t have any loved ones either and he has chosen to stay here and help others”. It crossed Juliet’s mind that Victor had an answer for everything, but she then remembered that he didn’t and it was this intriguing aspect that held Juliet’s interest in events. “Let’s get this over with” Juliet stepped into the lift with Victor and allowed Stanley to push the button marked 5.