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He stepped away from the woman on the bed and, in the same movement, pulled the stethoscope roughly from his ears. He moved with cruel, ill-tempered movements, angered by something, the arthritis in his hands, perhaps. During these examinations I would study his mannerisms, the slight changes to the wide, unreadable blade of his face, looking for signs. He was like a god to me at these times, and I would wait helplessly in the dark for deliverance. That was what it was like when you were given a ward; your own life fell away. Their life became more important than your own.
He jabbed everything into his leather bag and I followed him out of the room onto the landing where we stood together in a shaft of daylight that passed through the uprights of the bannisters and made a barred pattern on the carpet at our feet as if to remind us of the cages that lay just beneath the surface of our lives – even hers. No amount of shepherding around in the dark, of leading our invisible lives, even the great secrets she knew, could change that fact. We had no more freedom than birds inside cages.
He murmured an apology as he reached passed me to push the door to, not wanting the woman to overhear what he had to say, then he spoke to me in a low, grave voice, his eyes shadowed by the prominent brow and fierce with the moral importance of his position as he gave me his instructions.
After seeing him out I went upstairs again and sat with the woman. I touched her hand, traced some shape on her palm that I’ve long since forgotten. Some time later she woke and I went to prepare something for her to eat. The loaf of bread seemed much smaller than I’d remembered and I made a note to buy some more. She ate a little of what I brought her, said nothing, and went back to sleep.
I continued my vigil. I looked around at the things in the bedroom as I’d done so many times before. A comb on a dresser. A picture in a frame. A cardigan hanging off the back of a chair. What were these things anymore? What had they been? They seemed to have had their context surgically removed like an appendix and without it had become meaningless. At intervals I got up, left her for a while, then returned.
An hour or two after the doctor’s visit, I looked up and was startled to see a child in the half light of the landing. I saw it turn and run away. I got quickly to my feet and left the room, locking the door behind me. I heard the scuff of the child’s feet on the stairs then on the hallway tiles below.
I searched each room of the house, pulling off the dust sheets that had been thrown over furniture, whipping back curtains. There were set procedures for dealing with intruders of any age, and I was readying myself for that.
But the child was nowhere to be seen. Then just as I was about to give up, an ordinary panelled door, duck egg blue, caught my eye. It was the door to a storage cupboard. I looked inside and saw a crust of bread on the floor. Then after a moment heard what sounded like a murmur. I took a step forwards and as I did found myself suddenly in the long red-carpeted corridor of another house. I saw the child at the end of the corridor. It looked at me, then hurried away. Behind me was the panelled door I’d just come through, but instead of going back I turned and followed the child along the corridor until I saw it go into a room. I opened the door and found the child sitting on a small bed, its face turned to the window, a dark blue hood pulled up over its head and down over his or her face.
Through a window I saw children playing in a courtyard. Hopscotch, a skipping rope. They wore clothes from another time, buckles on their shoes. Some of them were chanting something.
“You came,” the child said quietly, a boy’s voice.
An ache of loneliness filled that room. Its spare furniture was the complete opposite of the plush corridor outside. The child kept his face hidden from me under the hood of his cloak even when he spoke, but I could tell he was watching the children.
“Why don’t you go down and play with them?” I asked.
“They don’t want me to.”
He ignored my question. “Can you stay with me for a while?” he asked instead.
“I have to go back.”
“Just for a while,” he said. “We could play a game. Couldn’t we?”
“Do you know any?”
Some writing paper on the table reminded me of something. I took a sheet and began to fold it this way and that until it resembled a bird. I put it on the bedside table for him. His hand emerged from under his cloak and I saw him touch it with interest.
I made another one, more slowly this time, so that he could see how. I helped him make one, then we sat there making them together.
Some time later we heard footsteps in the corridor. The boy became suddenly frightened and told me to hide inside the wardrobe. I did, and waited, watching through the crack between the doors. A young woman in a hooped petticoat and powdered hair swooshed in. She looked at the birds and scowled, then grabbed the boy’s hand and began to bend his fingers back with all her might. The boy, his face turned away from her, made a whimpering sound.
When she finally let him go, she turned her attention to the paper birds. She snatched them up off the table and screwed them up in her fist. Then she gathered up her skirts and rustled out of the room.
I came out of the wardrobe and went quickly to the boy to look at his hand. “Is it OK?” I asked.
“Who was she?”
“Why did she hurt you like that?”
“It’s not her fault,” he said.
“Then whose is it?”
“Mine,” he said and his hand pushed the hood back from his head. I saw that he had no ears and no lips. His mouth was a hole. His skin was ridged and segmented like the body of an insect.
“See,” he said, seeing my shock I suppose, and put the hood back up over his head.
I felt bad, and felt I should stay, but I had to go. I had to go back to the woman I was looking after. “Come to see me,” I said, and the child said yes, he would come.
There are set procedures for eventualities like this – when you’ve been compromised, when the safety of your ward is threatened. I should have mentioned it to the doctor, but something held me back, some wish to keep this small thing for myself. Our profession has a thirst for stories about the ingenious ways the others can get us to fail our wards. But I was a reasonable person and believed there was a rational explanation to account for the child. I also knew that anything I said would cast a doubt over my fitness to look after the woman and I didn’t know how I would cope if she was taken away from me.
In the house afterwards, I waited for the child to come. For a while my fear of being discovered stopped me from going into the cupboard myself but in the end my anxieties about the child got the better of me and I finally went in and passed through into that other house. I found him locked in his room, the key still in the lock. I turned it and went in.
I stood quietly for a moment while he sat half turned away from me, a hand holding the hem of the hood down over his face.
“I thought you would never come,” he said.
“Because I showed you my face.”
“Why is your door locked?” I asked.
“Someone saw me, a guest.”
I had to fight my instinct to save him. My emotions threatened to get the better of me, and I almost started to make promises I could never keep.
“You don’t need to hide your face from me,” I said.
He didn’t lift the hood, but I felt his small body relax. He reached under his bed and slid out a box and lifted the lid to show me the paper birds he’d made.
I went to see him again and again just to be with him for a while. I would turn the key to his locked room eager to hear that note of happiness that came into his voice when I visited. He even lowered his hood eventually and I began to recognise the different emotions in his face. Not much different from anyone’s in the end.
“Who is the woman?” he asked one day.
I explained about how much the lives of everyone depended on her and how I had given my own life for that.
“She’s lucky,” he said.
“To have someone like you.”
“I wish she didn’t sometimes,” I said, hardly knowing what I was saying – me with my calling that was held in such high regard.
“You could have your own life here,” he said.
I thought about that. How easy it would be to walk out of my life into that house and not go back. I felt it each time I left her after that. I breathed the air of the other house hungrily.
During the doctor’s visits now I felt distant and knew he eyed me suspiciously at times.
“Is everything all right?” he would ask. “Remember how important you are to her.”
Suddenly she began to show signs of improvement and the doctor announced one day that he wanted her to go to the coast where the sea air might do her some good. He looked me dead in the eye when he said it as if waiting to see me hesitate.
We stayed away for a long time, and the woman began to resemble again someone I knew. I pushed her in a wheelchair along coast roads and then, eventually, walked with her. She began to talk again, to smile. To speak in that voice that for me sounded like it could heal the world. I put the child out of my mind.
That coastal town holds a special place in my memory. Not only did the woman who was in my care regain some semblance of who she’d been, but I did too. When we finally went back to the house, the bare walls and floors seemed full of opportunity and ideas again rather than the outward sign of what we’d lost.
I never told the woman about the child. In that time everything was uncertain – people disappearing and appearing again out of the blue all the time – and I knew she wasn’t strong enough for such puzzles yet, if she ever would be.
At first it was with relief that I found the storage cupboard to be silent and the wall solid enough to take my weight, but over time the memory of the child would creep up on me in our quietest and most peaceful moments and I would think of him alone in the locked room, lost to me and to time.