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.