The Patient Man – a short story

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He pulled the boat ashore on the small green island, dragging it up the gravelly beach into undergrowth and covering it so that it was invisible from the lake. It was many years since he had been there but nothing seemed to have changed. He made his way through the trees, up and over the crest of the island and down into a sheltered valley where a stone bothy emerged from the rowan trees. From the valley there was a narrow view to the seaward end of the loch. It was a perfect place to hide from the world and over the years it had been used by hermits and refugees, from wars and wives, looking for a quiet life. The loch was full of fish and its shores of rabbits and summer raspberries.

This new refugee had come a long way to find the place again, a place he had known once as a backdrop to youthful fantasies. Here he had been a hero: a knight, a brave, a pirate. Now he was none of those things, but it felt like home. He pulled open the warped door and looked in. There was a drift of dry leaves on the floor and a damp patch where the roof let in a shaft of pale sun. Better get that fixed, he thought. It was in better condition than he had expected though. It didn’t take long to sweep the floor with a bit of brushwood, which then served as kindling for a small fire to take off the edge of damp.

By the time the sun was setting he had settled himself and his few belongings comfortably into the bothy. He lay looking out towards the glowing western sky, and sleep rose up to claim his weariness.

He woke long after dawn from a profound and dreamless sleep. In spite of an inadequate bed, he felt more rested than he could remember; there would be no demands made of him today. He stretched luxuriously and walked down to the water’s edge, looking across the still surface of the loch and filling his lungs with cool air. Suddenly he laughed out loud. Stripping off his clothes, he plunged into the water and swam strongly away from the shore.

 

The locals soon became aware that someone was staying on the island. Rumours trickled along the narrow roads. Dour old men shook their heads and looked for reasons to disapprove. ‘Who is he? What’s he doing here?’ ‘Must be something odd there.’ ‘Probably hiding from the law.’ The lack of real information encouraged increasingly wild speculations. The only person who had actually spoken to him was the proprietor of the village post office. She kept what little knowledge she had to herself, maintaining her pose of professional confidentiality and enjoying the small sense of importance it conferred. But she knew that he was paying rent to the laird who owned the island, and he had collected several weighty parcels that had arrived at the post office, addressed to Jack Winter. He had a battered old car that lived by the jetty, but rarely went anywhere. He spoke little when he came into the post office and seemed content to remain a mysterious stranger. If he was aware of the speculation about his presence and his past, he showed no sign of it.

 

On the island, Jack spent the first few days rediscovering his little kingdom. It was nearly forty years since he had last been there, but he could still identify the great tree which had been his lookout post, and the rocky cove which his imagination had populated with one-legged sailors or wild children eating pemmican and squashed fly biscuits, depending on what book he was living in at the time. His family had found the place as an ideal summer holiday when he was very small and they came back year after year. It felt like a truer home than the suburban semi that was officially ‘home’. As Jack grew from toddler to adventurer he acquired a younger brother and sister, who followed him when they could, eagerly playing supporting roles in his exploits. He was their captain, and their defender and comforter when the adventures led to accidents or irate parents.

The last holiday had been the best. His siblings were old enough to be allowed out in the little rowing boat without a grown-up, and their adventures expanded into new realms. It was a glorious summer with long days of sun and everywhere seemed to welcome them. They stayed for an extra week – an unprecedented change of routine. Long after, Jack would remember that time as an unbelievable idyll – it remained a vision of freedom and escape which seemed to become more and more inaccessible as life wound itself around him.

 

They had gone ‘home’ and returned to the humdrumness of school and work. But then everything in Jack’s life had changed. One day he had slouched up the road from the bus stop, dragging his school bag along, with a gang of dishevelled schoolmates, and, going into his gate and round to the back door, had found his mother standing in the garden, a dead cigarette in one raised hand, the other arm folded tightly across her ribs, as if holding herself together. ‘Mum?’ She had turned to face him, and crumpled into childlike tears. ‘Oh Jack! What are we going to do? Your dad’s gone…’ And she had held on to him desperately, as if he was the grown-up who could make everything better.

He was only thirteen then but very quickly he grew into his new role. To his brother and sister it seemed completely natural that Jack would be in charge of things. His mother took his competence for granted too, and it allowed her to retreat further and further into her sadness. When his teachers asked how things were at home, he said ‘Fine,’ and they were impressed by this quiet boy’s maturity and dedication to his family. Options time came round and, to the music teacher’s regret, Jack chose ‘sensible’, vocational courses. He left school at sixteen and got an apprenticeship with an electrician, adding a little to his mother’s small income, while his brother and sister pursued their own ambitions.

In time they left home, escaping to universities in distant cities to study languages or history. Their lives expanded to encompass many friends and some lovers, eventually partners and children. But Jack was always there in the background, called upon when crises struck, when relationships foundered or jobs were lost. He was the one his sister came to when she miscarried an unplanned pregnancy, confused and distraught in her unexpected grief. He was the one his brother came to for advice about girls or money.

When his siblings eventually grew out of him, becoming wiser and finding permanent partners, their place in his life was taken by their own children. His nieces and nephews looked forward to visiting Grandma and Uncle Jack, where there would be patient indulgence and adventures in the woods.

Through all these years there was his mother, for whom he was a constant support. Her friends would say, ‘You’re so lucky to have Jack!’ She knew they were right and she tried to give something back in gratitude and love. Some of them thought, but didn’t say, ‘what a waste’, as they remembered the bright, singing child, and watched the grown man fading with the years, making them cups of tea and hanging his work clothes to dry in the back garden.

There were few lovers in Jack’s life and none that lasted long. They were attracted to this ‘strong silent type’, but he seemed too involved with his family for there to be room for another real relationship. They quickly realised he would not be able to put them at the centre of his life, however much he might have wished it. So they moved on. A few perceptive friends sensed a hidden inner world in his silences, a world that absorbed what was left of his energy and time.

That little left grew smaller as his mother aged. Her demands became more needy as her voice became vaguer. One day, he came home from work to find her sitting on the floor in the living room making a precarious tower with coal from the scuttle. She looked up and said, ‘Hello, daddy. Do you like the house I’ve built?’

The dementia diagnosis took some months to be confirmed, but her decline was swift. In her moments of lucidity Jack saw the loving and grateful mother he had cared for unquestioningly for years, but those moments became more fleeting and infrequent. He gave up his job to look after her full-time, and his world narrowed.

Visits from his nieces and nephews were rare now as they grew older and found grandma’s strangenesses hard to cope with. His brother and sister still came to the old house from time to time, but they felt more guilt than anything, faced with an altered mother and a brother who seemed to have given his life away, enabling them to live theirs.

Then one day, they both received a letter from Jack. ‘Mum doesn’t know me anymore. The social workers say she needs to go into a nursing home now, so that’s what’s going to happen. If you want to visit her you can. I’m selling the house. I’ll send you both your shares. I’m going away. Be well. Love, Jack’

 

Jack had been settled in on the island for a few months before anyone ventured into his domain. He was taking his now regular morning swim in the loch when he noticed a small figure spidering across the rocks at the far end of the island. He swam further out to avoid any meeting and only when the boy had disappeared around the headland did he return to the shore. The boy had noticed the swimmer but he was not inclined to make contact either. He was enjoying this exciting, almost empty, place and wanted to carry on as if it was his alone. For a while the two of them sustained this mutual pact of invisibility. Sometimes, when he caught a vanishing glimpse of the boy through trees, Jack felt that he was sharing the island with a ghost of his own youth.

The boy and his mother were staying in the village for the long summer holiday, and she had heard a few of the rumours about the stranger on the island. The post mistress had tapped the side of her nose and a man in the pub had warned her gloomily to keep an eye on her boy. She knew the power of gossip in a small community though, and took little notice. Peter had told her about the man who always kept his distance, so she just told the boy to be careful and to respect his privacy.

So things remained for a couple of weeks, the boy rowing out in his little inflatable and exploring the parts of the island furthest from the bothy and ‘the swimmer’s beach’, as he thought of it. Jack recognised and was grateful for the boy’s reticence. It was on a particularly dazzling evening that they broke this pattern. Jack had built a fire on the beach and was cooking sausages. The delicious smell drifted through the trees and Peter couldn’t resist. Jack had seen him already and had decided that it would do no harm to share the sausages if he approached. They sat quietly eating together, asking no questions, and when the food was all gone, Peter got up, said thanks, and went back to his boat to go home before the sun set.

A new pattern formed. They still mostly left each other to their own devices but every day or two Jack would find he had company for dinner. They would talk shyly, about the island and the things the boy found there, interesting rocks or beetles, or the birds who sailed overhead. Jack came to look forward to his visits, as a distraction from the work that occupied most of his time. It allowed him the distance he needed for ideas to settle in or to prove themselves worthless. Peter too looked forward to their meetings, for the food of course, but also for the company of this patient man. He had never known a grown-up who seemed to have so much time to listen to him without pushing in with questions about things that didn’t matter. It felt like talking to another boy sometimes, but a boy with no agenda of his own, just a calm and thoughtful person who would hear him out. Jack often seemed to understand Peter’s meaning before he did himself, and it gave Peter a sense of the worth of his own ideas that was new and thrilling. Peter was careful though, not to overstay his welcome. Sometimes he felt as if, in befriending this quiet man, he’d tamed a wild thing, a solitary creature that might leap away if he came too close. He didn’t tell his mother much about their conversations. He wanted to keep them to himself, aware perhaps that exposure can damage fragile things.

 

Towards the end of August a few days passed with no visit from Peter. Jack wondered if he had gone home, but when he went ashore to get supplies and pay his rent the post mistress was full of the news that that boy Peter had fallen out of a tall tree and was in hospital. Amazing, he’d only broken his leg! Lucky beggar. Jack said nothing but took note, and decided a trip to town would not be unreasonable. It was a bit of a struggle getting the old car started, but in a couple of hours he was looking for a parking space at the hospital.

A little later he had nearly given up on seeing Peter. The hospital staff were adamant that random strangers would not be allowed in to see children. As he was slowly heading back to the car park though, a voice came from behind him, ‘Are you Jack?’ He turned round to see who had called his name. It was a woman, looking a little flustered, but smiling. He acknowledged his name and said, ‘You must be Peter’s mother? How is he?’

‘He’ll be fine, stupid boy. Just a greenstick fracture and a cast for a few weeks. Cunning timing – he’s supposed to go back to school next week.’ She grinned with relief. ‘Come and say hello. He’d like that.’

 

‘So you climbed a tree…?’

‘Yes! It was great! I could see for miles. And I got almost all the way back down before I slipped.’

‘Good,’ Jack smiled.

‘Can we come back again next year, Mum?’

‘We’ll see…’

‘Aww, Mum!’

‘We’ll see! But I can’t see why not right now – as long as you promise not to fall out of any more trees.’

‘You could stay on the island if…’ Jack said, surprising himself.

‘Oh yes, Mum! Can we?’

 

When Peter and his mum arrived at the beginning of the next summer holidays things on the island had changed somewhat. The money from the sale of the house had come through and Jack had bought the bothy and extended it a little, installing a small wind turbine. The prevailing westerlies supplied enough power for his minimal needs. He still lived in almost preindustrial simplicity except for a couple of pieces of 21st century electronics, which had aroused great curiosity at the post office when they were delivered.

Peter was a bit disappointed at these changes but cheered up when he was reassured that he would still be sleeping under canvas, not in the enlarged bothy. They pitched the two one-man tents out of sight of the bothy so that he could pretend to be an intrepid explorer far from civilisation, at least some of the time. And so began the summer that for Peter would be his own dreamtime, a store of shining images he would preserve in memory all his life.

The three of them soon fell into a kind of slow, wide dance, coming and going in their separate orbits, joining hands at meals by the evening fire. They were all three inclined to solitariness, valuing their own space and time, but to be able to leaven that solitude with undemanding company was a pleasure too. And gradually they let each other into their private worlds, sharing bits of the past in rambling conversations through the long northern dusk.

Kate told Jack of her family, of her mother, who had so absorbed herself into her love of her husband that, on his death, her will had run out like sand in an hourglass and she had survived him by only three months. This had stood as a warning for Kate, and when she found herself expecting a child she had had no desire to bond herself to its father. He was a footloose, feckless friend, and she only occasionally felt a sliver of guilt that he did not know he was a father. Peter grew up as happy as any of his friends, secure in her love, and protected from the traumas of family collapse that fell upon some among his schoolmates.

And when Kate saw her son with this solid man, she felt herself vindicated. In Jack he found a playmate, older brother, wise uncle all in one. I was right, she thought. Peter’s father could never have given him all that. She watched Jack’s agile hands as he taught Peter to tie interesting knots with curious names, and listened to the music of their quiet, absorbed conversations, Jack’s resonant voice a low undercurrent to Peter’s light wandering descant.

Jack let Kate in more slowly. She learned a little of his family, and his care of them, and wondered how he had stayed so strong for them all. One evening she asked, ‘What kept you going? I couldn’t have done that, all alone.’

He looked up from the little fire, its flames sparking in his eyes and said, ‘Music.’

‘Oh!’ She was taken by surprise – he seemed to live as close to silence as he could. ‘But now…?’ She looked around them as if to say, where is the music here?

‘Come.’ He stood up and walked to the bothy, knowing she would follow. In the new room at the back, which had been out of bounds to her and Peter, he showed her where the music lived: a keyboard with headphones plugged into it, a guitar and a pc, as well as shelves piled with manuscript paper. Handwritten scores were pinned to the walls, scribbled on and rewritten till some were almost illegible.

‘It’s much easier now that I’ve got the equipment,’ he said.

Kate watched him as he looked around at his own work. She could almost see him beginning to be sucked into it, and she knew she must not ask any more. He wasn’t ready yet.

The summer days drifted by, and now Jack sometimes unplugged his headphones so they could hear bits of melody through the trees. In the evenings by the fire he might play and sing a little, old songs, not his own, but in a voice as strong and many-stranded as twisted rope, as strong as the muscles that moved in his arms as he played.

 

And in the glimmering dark of a short northern night, when she first came to his bed, it was a meeting of minds and bodies, a grace, a benediction.

 

Their lives from then on formed a cycle of distance and intimacy. Kate’s colleagues in the staff room teased her about the mystery man of her summers. The locals around the loch forgot their speculations and Jack was just the island man with his summer wife. He went away from time to time for brief visits with Kate or to see a publisher in the city, but always returned gladly to his private realm, to morning swims and sunsets filled with silence.

 

A few years later, his brother and sister, who had never managed to track him down (perhaps they had not tried too hard), received invitations to the premiere performance of a new work, Island Songs, by a hitherto unknown composer, Jack Winter. They were amazed when they walked into the foyer of the concert hall to see him standing, tall and quiet as ever, beside a handsome woman and an excited teenage boy. And his joyful smile when he caught sight of them took away all their guilt.

Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

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