This came to me in the wee small hours of this morning, almost fully-formed. We’ve just returned from a hotel holiday by the sea, and I’ve had a medical diagnosis which has been worrying. I think that many people when they are ill take advantage of their illness, consciously or not, and I wondered what it would be like if a naturally lazy and self-indulgent man became even more entrenched in his ways as a result of a vague medical condition.
“Shall we walk to Underdowne Sands today?” Jill said, taking another slice of toast and covering it with butter before sliding it under her fried egg, placing a rasher of bacon on top, and cutting off a less than delicate corner before conveying it to her mouth.
Her brother shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “How far is it? You know what the doctor said to me about overdoing things.” He stared resentfully at the untouched solitary poached egg that adorned his plate.
“I looked it up last night,” Jill said. “Three and a half miles along the cliff path. Or a little less if you go along the beach, and the beach would be flatter.”
“I’m sure that an hour’s walk wouldn’t be bad for you,” his wife, Lucy, told him. “I know Doctor Williams said that you shouldn’t overdo things, but he also said that you should get a bit of exercise. We’ll take it easy, and you can stop and take a rest whenever you need.”
“And there’s a café just outside Underdowne village which is meant to be really good,” Jill said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Oh, very well,” Jack said.
The fourth member of the party, Alice, sat silently, eating her grilled tomato and mushrooms. She never said much anyway, so it was difficult for the others to know what she was thinking. As the unmarried sister of Jill’s late husband, Bob, she was invariably included as part of Jack and Jill’s family events, but there always seemed to be more than a whiff of condescending charity about the invitations.
Jack attacked his egg. He’d had a bad scare when he’d visited the doctor a couple of months previously with a mysterious pain less than a year after retiring from his job in the insurance company. He’d been relieved when the tests had showed that it wasn’t cancer, but even so, it seemed that something strange was going on inside him, and as he often reminded the others, he’d been warned not to “overdo things”.
If truth be told, Jack rather enjoyed being treated as an invalid. Lucy had always spoiled him a little anyway, fussing over him, making sure he was comfortable and that everything was the way he wanted it to be. He wasn’t ungrateful about that – far from it – but the doctor’s diagnosis had brought a new level of solicitude and care into his life. There was even a thrill, if he admitted it to himself, of danger – living close to the edge – which had never been a part of his previous existence.
Added to his natural hypochondria, which had seen him take to his bed on more occasions than many would have considered necessary, this change to his medical condition suited him very well indeed, thank you.
He was lucky, he thought to himself, chasing the remains of the egg yolk around the plate with a corner of dry toast from which his wife had thoughtfully and wordlessly removed the crusts, with Lucy. And with Jill, as well. Some people seemed unable to appreciate their brothers and sisters, but Jill and he had always got on fine, and had been proud of the other’s achievements at school, college, and work, and had divided the chores associated with looking after their elderly parents equally between them. There was an unspoken agreement between James and Gillian (who had been “Jack” and “Jill” almost since they were born) that they were good for each other.
Half an hour later, the party of four assembled on the steps of the hotel, with the three women wearing sensible shoes and thin sweaters. Jack was dressed as if for an assault on an Antarctic mountain.
Jill laughed at the sight. “Jack! You’re going to roast in that lot. We’re going for a stroll along the beach in England in July, not hunting polar bears or penguins or something.”
“I told him,” Lucy said to her. “But he wouldn’t listen.” But there was no malice in the words, almost a quiet pride in Jack’s stubbornness.
“I can always take something off,” Jack answered her. “And if any of you ladies get cold, as I’m sure you will, that’s exactly what I’ll end up doing, lending you my coat and sweater.”
“Oh, don’t be so silly,” his sister told him. “Off we go.”
She strode off, swinging the Alpine walking sticks that Jack and Lucy had given her for her birthday some years ago. The others followed in her wake.
They reached the beach to discover that the tide was in and they would have to find a path through the rocks and boulders above the high water mark, rather than on the firm sand that would have been exposed at low tide.
“This isn’t easy,” Lucy said, after a few minutes.
“It’s not,” Jack agreed. “I think this comes into the category of overdoing it.”
“Wait for poor Alice,” Lucy said. Her sister-in-law was some hundred yards behind them, making slow progress as she picked her way between the rocks. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Jack perched on the edge of a large rock and caught his breath. “I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” he said.
“Well, there’s always the cliff path,” Jill replied, pointing upwards.
Jack groaned. “I’m not sure I can make it up there.”
“Of course you can. You lead and set the pace, then we’ll be sure we won’t be going too fast for you. Here, have one of my sticks.”
As she passed the stick over to him, Lucy and Alice joined them.
“Sorry,” said Alice. “I was looking at some of the plants growing on the rocks back there.” She was looking flushed and was breathing quite heavily.
“I didn’t mean to rush you, Alice,” Lucy said to her. “Sorry if I made you catch up a bit fast.”
“Oh, it’s all right. Just not very used to walking on stones like this. It’s a bit different from Edgbaston, isn’t it?”
“Will you be all right if we go up the cliff path?” Jill asked her. “It will be a bit longer, but I think the views will be lovely once we get up there. Jack will lead, so we don’t go too fast for him.”
“I think I can manage that,” Alice told her. “I’m ready to go on. Sorry, everybody.”
Jack strode off. Not too fast, he told himself. Remember what the doctor said about not overdoing things. With the staff in his hand, and the three women following him, he felt almost mythic. A sort of tribal leader, guiding his people. So, his body might be weak, but he had a mighty spirit, didn’t he? He breathed in the sea air as he started to climb the cliff path. It wasn’t too bad, actually. The path was clearly marked and quite smooth. There were even handrails in places. He strode on, the staff digging into the chalky soil as he climbed.
He started to hum wordlessly to himself, and suddenly recognised the tune. “Onward Christian Soldiers” – now where had that come from? He hadn’t been in a church since… since his brother-in-law Bob’s funeral, and he couldn’t remember that they’d sung that then.
“Are you all right?” Lucy’s voice came from behind him. “Need to rest?”
“I’m fine,” he said, stopping, “but it might be nice to have a bit of a breather. Did you bring the water bottle? I’m a bit dry.”
“Take off that thick jacket, then,” suggested Lucy. “I’ll carry it for you.”
“Thanks.” He shrugged his way out of the expensive insulated breathable windproof waterproof jacket that he’d bought specially for this trip.
“What a view!” Jill exclaimed, looking out over the bay. It really was wonderful, Jack had to agree. The sun was starting to burn through the mist, and the windows of the town below were shining in the sun.
“Where’s Alice?” Lucy asked.
“Here I am,” came a small voice from the path below them. “Sorry again, everybody.” Alice’s little round red face appeared from behind a gorse bush. “I just had to catch my breath a bit.”
“Oh dear, are you all right?”
“I’m fine now.”
“Do you want to rest a little more before we set off again?”
“I’m OK, really.”
Jack felt a little aggrieved. After all, it was he who had been told to not overdo things and to watch his health.
Almost angrily, he set off up the track with deliberate strides, going a little faster than before. By the time he had reached the top of the cliff, he was blowing hard, and felt the need to sit down.
Lucy caught up with him a minute or so later. “Are you all right, dear?” she asked, with obvious concern in her voice.
“I’ll be okay,” he replied in a martyred tone. “Just a bit winded, that’s all. Did you remember to bring those pink pills with you?”
“I’ve got all your medicines with me in my bag,” his wife told him. “I know you never remember to bring them with you when we go out. Here you are.”
“Water,” he demanded, putting the tablet in his mouth.
“Thank you.” He might be unwell, but that was no reason to be ungracious, he said to himself.
Alice and Jill appeared at the top after a while.
“The view’s even better from up here,” Alice said, looking around. To Jack’s relief, she seemed to have recovered completely from whatever it was which had affected her earlier.
“You’re looking better,” Lucy told her.
“Second wind,” Alice said. “Anyone want a bit?” holding out a bar of Kendal mint cake.
“Lovely, thank you,” said Jill, taking a piece.
“Thank you, Alice,” said Jill.
“I’d better not,” said Jack, “after what the doctor told me about eating too much sugar. Especially if we’re going to have a cake or something when we get to that café you were talking about.” Time for him to reassert his place as the invalid of the party now that Alice seemed to have recovered. “Just give me a couple more minutes before we set off again.”
“Take as long as you need,” Alice said to him.
The cheek of it! After waiting for her to catch up, three times now, she was the one who was telling him to rest. “Perhaps you’d like to go in front?” he suggested, more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“No, it’s best if you lead,” she said.
At least there was that. He heaved himself to his feet, with Lucy giving him a hand, and set off along the cliff path. The sun was shining now, and even without his jacket, which Lucy was carrying for him, he was still too warm, but he decided to say nothing, although the sweat was now running down his face.
“You’re looking very hot, dear,” Lucy said to him when he paused and looked back at his followers. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. How much further?” he asked Jill, who was looking at the map on her phone.
“Another mile or so to the village. The café’s a few hundred yards inland from the rest of the village. Perhaps another thirty minutes. Can you manage?”
“Of course I can,” he replied indignantly. But despite the indignation, it was nice, he told himself, to be treated as the member of the party who needed the care and attention of the others. This was the compensation for being an invalid. Almost made it worthwhile.
He started to hum to himself again, and to his surprise heard Alice’s voice singing along.
“Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the church of God.
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.”
“Where did you learn that, Alice?” Jill asked, laughing.
“At the Diocesan Synod,” Alice said. “From one of the assistant bishops, actually.”
“I never knew bishops had that sort of sense of humour.”
“You’d be surprised,” Alice told her.
They reached the village. A bowl of muesli with plain yoghurt, one poached egg and a slice of dry toast seemed a long time ago, and a cup of decent coffee and a slice of cake sounded like a wonderful idea.
The café, which was only a few hundred yards up the road from the village, was appropriately Olde Worlde. There was a table in the garden, pleasantly shaded by a fig tree, and the waitress took their orders for two lattes (Jill and Alice), a cappuccino (Lucy), and an americano (Jack, reluctantly) and cakes.
While they were waiting for their order, “Just look at those roses,” Lucy said, admiringly. She had a passion for roses. The flowerbeds in the garden at home were filled with them. She got up, and Jill joined her as they walked over to the flowerbed.
“I’ll stay here and wait for them to bring the order,” Alice said. “Don’t be too long, or the coffee will get cold.”
Jack said nothing, but closed his eyes. He felt weary. He seemed to become tired and want to sleep more than he ever had done before the diagnosis. Slowing down, he told himself. Perfectly natural. But it was very nice to be able to do nothing, and for the illness, whatever it might be, to take responsibility for it.
A slight clinking of china and silverware told him that the drinks had arrived, and he heard Alice’s voice explaining which coffee and which cake went where. No need for him to open his eyes. He drifted away, listening to the sound of the bees in the lavender, a pigeon cooing somewhere close by, and a tractor somewhere in the distance… Thanks to the tablets he’d taken earlier in the day, he felt no pain…
He was woken by Lucy shaking him and shouting at him, “Wake up, you lazy lump!” There was a hysterical scream which he recognised as Jill’s voice.
Lazy? Him? Lazy? Why, he’d led them on this morning’s trek, hadn’t he? Lucy never used that sort of language to him. He opened his eyes. Lucy was standing in front of him.
“What’s the matter? If the coffee’s gone cold, we could get another one.”
“Look!” Jill shrieked at him. Lucy moved to one side. He could now see the waitress who had taken their order, bending over Alice, who was slumped over the table, her face half-buried in the slice of chocolate cake in front of her. “She’s dying, you fat fool!” his sister said. “And you just sat there and did nothing!”
“I… I…” He stopped. “Dying?”
“There’s a very weak irregular pulse, said the waitress. “I was a nurse, and I know what I’m looking for. I’m so sorry. I’ve called 999 but God only knows how long it will take for them to get here from the town. I’m so sorry,” she repeated.
“Did you really not notice anything?” his sister asked Jack. “You really are bloody useless, aren’t you?”
“I was asleep, I suppose. You know how easily I get tired with this condition and all.”
He felt a strong resentment against Alice. He had been supposed to be the invalid, not her. With a sudden stab of self-knowledge, he realised he’d never be able to rely on Lucy, or Jill for that matter, to sympathise with him again.
“Sorry,” he said, but if his apology was heard, it went un-noted.
There was a hostile silence as the women raised Alice back in her chair. The waitress disappeared and returned with a bowl and a damp cloth which she used to wipe Alice’s face gently. The bees still hummed, and the pigeon still cooed, but the sound of the tractor had been replaced by the distant sound of an approaching ambulance siren. Other than that, the brittle silence prevailed.
At length, the ambulance arrived, and the paramedics skilfully bundled Alice onto the stretcher. “We’ll give her oxygen,” one of them told Jill. “There’s an excellent chance of her survival, I’d say.”
“We’re going to the hospital,” Lucy told Jack, “Jill and me.”
“You’re going back to the hotel.”
“Walking? In my cond—” He broke off. His trump card had been out-trumped.
“Yes. Walking. Here’s your coat. And your bloody pills. And your water bottle. And all of your other crap I’ve been carrying for you.”
And with that, they were off in the ambulance.
And just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse…
“I know you didn’t drink your coffees and eat the cakes, and of course I’m terribly sorry about what happened to your friend, but I really do have to ask you to pay for them.”
It was the last straw. Lucy was the one who carried their money. He tried to explain, and ended up breaking down. Life was just so unfair.
Sadly, I do recognise some of myself in Jack – but I’m not that bad. Honestly.