A Travelling Man

William Shotton was old and creased and lay on an unhappy bed of twisted sheets. He chewed with an empty mouth and when he did, his false teeth did a little dance around his gums for everyone to see.

     “I want to go home,” he said.

     “We all want to go home, Bill, but it’s not so bad here, is it?” I moved the drip stand to one side and looked at his obs chart. “We look after you, don’t we?”

     Bill Shotton didn’t answer, but his teeth danced around his mouth a little more and he stared out of the open window and on to the hospital car park.

     “I don’t like new places,” he said eventually, “I’m not a very good traveller.”

     “Me neither, but even old places were new places, once upon a time.”  I went to shut the window, but he stopped me.

     “No, leave it open. I might decide to escape and catch the last bus home,” he said. And then he winked and smiled and I saw in his eyes a little glimpse of a life he once lived.

     Each day for a week, I visited Bill, to check on his medication and his observations and to be told how much he didn’t like new places.

     “I like my own bed,” he said, “I like to look through the window and see the view I’m used to seeing and I like to stare around the room and find my old life staring back at me.”

     There was no sign of an old life in Bill’s side room. Whilst other patients were dealt a hand of get well cards and collected pictures and ornaments and pieces of the outside world, Bill just had one photograph by his bed. A blurred image of an old border collie, sitting at the foot of the stairs, in a house of long ago times.

     “His name was Charley,” he told me. “When I lost him, I think I lost a little bit of myself at the same time. You knew where you were with Charley. Neither of us liked new places.”

     “But even old places−” I started to say.

     “I know, were new places once upon a time.” Bill smiled and looked at the photograph, but I knew from his eyes that he was seeing something else. “But it’s still scary, isn’t it, a new place?” he said.

     “It is, but sometimes we don’t have a choice. And new doesn’t always mean bad.”

     He squeezed my hand.

     “No,” he said, “I don’t believe it does.”

     Bill put down the photograph and looked at the plate of untouched hospital food by his bed.

     “You know what I could eat right now?” he said and nodded at the open window. For a moment, I thought he was really planning to climb out, but then he turned to me and grinned. “I could just eat a great big plate of fish and chips.”

     And so after my shift ended, I bought us fish and chips and we filled the ward with the smell of hot salt and vinegar and talked about how neither of us travelled very well.  I knew I should have left, but sometimes, even when you know you are building your own gallows, even when you can see the fall you will eventually take, sometimes it’s even harder just to walk away.

     The next time I saw Bill, I knew the cancer which crouched in his body had begun to win the war. His skin was as pale as paper and hands which once played with agitation, now lay still on a hospital blanket.

     “I don’t like new places,” he said, “I don’t travel very well.”

     “Me neither.” I sat by his bed and wondered what had ever first possessed me to become a doctor. “But remember the once upon a time. New doesn’t always have to mean bad.”

     He gripped my hand so tightly, I had to wait until he slept before I could leave.

     The bleep came at four o’clock. I knew it would come, but I selfishly hoped that someone else would be asked to certify Bill’s death. That I wouldn’t have to walk to the gallows I had built for myself and I could be spared another of my Kodak moments.

     I still talked to him. Even though he was gone, I talked about how I hated new places and how I wanted to go home and how I didn’t travel very well.

     And then I saw it.

     I  had never noticed it before. In all the time we had talked, I had never looked closely enough. But there it was. Around his neck, old and tired and worn, was a tiny, silver medal of St Christopher.

     And I smiled, because I knew he’d be fine.

     We’d both be fine.


  1. Ah that is lovely, Joanna. To be a part of someone like Bill’s life, for however short a time and in whatever circumstances, is part of both your journeys. God bless.

  2. Thank you, Jo. I’ve been thinking a lot about traveling lately. And I loved what you said. “Old places were new once too.” I’ll remember that. Much love.

  3. I was struck by the opening line – it has a wonderful rhythm to it, as though it is the lead-in to a poem. Once again you give a voice and a presence to someone who would otherwise be heard and seen by no-one. Very poignant and thought-provoking as usual.

  4. awwww Jo…another one that made me cry..and as always. ..think about how the smallest gesture could mean so much to someone…who has no one to be there for them in their old age. Thanks for being Bill’s someone in his time of need.

  5. Stunning, Jo. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to your blog posts. Beautiful writing indeed.

  6. Driving home tonight I turned to Mr Effie and said, ‘ Imagine having a cancer and knowing you are going to die.’ I felt tears well up from nowhere, from somewhere, and I guess it was a bit insensitive as he had cancer back in 2000.
    Then I came home, read your blog. And felt it all over again. Emotional piece. You do it so well.

  7. Every time. EVERY time I visit your blog, I end up in tears. Your writing is consistently exquisite, but more than that so clearly drawn from snapshots of real experience and emotions. This blog is definitely one of my favourites to visit. Keep up the amazing work.

  8. This was wonderful Jo. I didn’t cry at this one – I smiled because it was so full of hope and tenderness and care. I know how much you suffer when you let yourself get close to your patients but you have to remember what that closeness means to them at the most vulnerable time of their lives. And I think the fact that you keep opening yourself up like that and putting yourself in that position again and again shows that you DO remember it. And THAT gives me hope as much as Bill’s travelling saint.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  9. That’s weird, I left a comment last night and it wasn’t saved.

    Just to say I cried too. Particularly timely because last night I was remembering being at my friend Pip’s bedside the night before she died. She was surrounded by loving friends and it was a beautiful moment. I am glad Bill had you.

  10. Those fish and chips really matter. I remember when I was small going with my father to visit an ancient great aunt (my maternal grandmother’s sister). She was in an old people’s home and had no children so few people visited her. Last time we met she had spoken about how she liked to shell peas and eat them raw so we took her a bag of peas in their pods. My mother would never have approved such a gift – she would have insisted on fruit or chocolates or something else ‘normal’ but the ancient aunt was delighted with them. Doing the things that matter to each person as an individual is what it’s all about. I’m sure those fish and chips were the best Bill ever tasted.

  11. Thank you so much for such lovely comments. I sit here scribbling away to myself and I’m always amazed and really touched that people take the time to read and are so incredibly supportive. To know that the subjects I write about and the feelings I have strike a chord with other people is such a comfort and it really does make it so much easier to walk the hospital corridors. Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to post a reply x

  12. Really enjoyed this. Especially the sense of a simple pleasure (the chips) and how it meant so much. The hot salt and vinegar – I can taste them! Lost my granddad in similar circumstances and all he wanted was to be able to shave one last time. Well done.

  13. I always find myself holding my breath while I read your beautiful posts. Please don’t ever write too long of a post though or it could hurt when I fall off my chair in a faint 🙂

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