There were periods when I wasn’t sure if I was awake or dreaming. I know for the first time in what seemed like forever I actually felt warm; cosy and warm. The sensation was so enjoyable I settled back to enjoy it for as long as I could. Usually when I had managed to get marginally warm the light bedclothes slipped from the bed and my useless, uncooperative body couldn’t move enough to recover itself, so I always ended up feeling much colder. Until the irritating nurses came in and gently told me off for not reaching for the call button. Not that it was really that cold. The people who looked after me deliberately kept the temperature much higher than was comfortable for them. I did know that, it just irritated me that I needed to be kept in such sauna conditions. After sitting with me for a little while they’d make some excuse to go outside into the corridor for some blessed cool relief before tackling the inside of my room again.
This room was different. It was always dim and warm, but not over warm. This bed was different; the bedclothes never slipped off, and it felt like the sheets I lay on were cotton and the blankets covering me were real wool. I didn’t remember seeing this room previously. I didn’t even know what kind of place I was in. Me and my little bed seemed to be tucked into the corner of a kitchen, a very old looking kitchen. The open range sent out lots of welcome heat and there were always people around. This man who fussed around me was different too. He seemed to have me as his main occupation, then there was a tall slim man. The big man and the slim man both had a riot of curly hair. In one of my more lucid moments I wondered if they were related but as the tall, slim man had burn scars up one side of his face it was difficult to tell if there was any family resemblance. It must have been hard for him, being so scarred because even with the scar tissue covering over half his face and his hands, it was obvious he had been a very good looking man. He too was always unfailingly kind and courteous to me, although I didn’t know his name either.
A third man came to visit in the evenings and always brought with him the sweet smell of baking and a good supply of sweetmeats. For some reason that made me uneasy, to see him eating and enjoying the pastries. He’d always cut one of them up for me and sit and feed me as much of it as I could eat, but I still didn’t like to see him eating them. I was fine watching the big man and the slim man tucking into them, just not this smaller man, with the impish sense of humour and dark eyes which held an irrepressible twinkle.
Thinking it over slowly, I had no memory of even arriving at this room or house or whatever it was. Just another symptom of my brain and body betraying me in old age and ill health I assumed. At least I wasn’t being subject to physical and speech therapy here. Here they just let me rest and do my own thing. Which wasn’t much of anything at all. I’d lay in my bed and watch the big man prepare meals and then clean up. Afterwards he’d check if I was alright and leave for a time. I assumed there were rooms both above and at the back of this kitchen as I could hear him moving about. Then he’d come back and prepare what I assumed was a mid-day meal. He’d pack a basket of food and take it outside, returning a little while later, then he’d sit and patiently feed me as much as I could eat, clean me up and only then he’d sit and chat whilst he ate his meal.
Sometimes I fell asleep watching him, then when I awoke the sky through the window would be darkened and the slim man would be washing up at the sink. I have no idea how long I lay just watching them in some kind of twilight land.
“Would you like a hot drink?” the big man asked as he tucked the brightly coloured wool throwover around my shoulders.
I nodded. From frustrating experience I knew it would be useless to try and speak. Not many people could understand my utterances these days, so I generally thought it prudent to save what little energy I had.
I must have closed my eyes and nodded off without realising it when a tantalising aroma flowed over me causing my eyes to open. The big man grinned down at me, waving the steam from the mug under my nose. It couldn’t be. I took a deeper breath. It was!
Grinning he said, “Thought you might enjoy this.”
He put the mug down on the wooden table at my side. Well, at least it looked like wood. Efficiently he hefted me up the bed and propped me up with plump pillows. With the utmost patience he fed me about half the mug of what smelt and tasted like real coffee. Earth type beans were so rare as to be virtually unobtainable, unless you were filthy rich. This humble little house, with wooden floors and rough plaster and wooden walls seemed like the last place to find such a delicacy. Reluctantly I refused the next mouthful. I was suddenly so tired again and my shrunken stomach felt a little overfull of the warm brew.
“Don’t worry Avon. I got a stash of good beans in, just for you, when I knew you were coming here. There’s plenty more where that came from.”
The big man casually finished the rest of the mug in a couple of mouthfuls. I envied him his easy strength though for all his size he was the gentlest nurse I’d even known. He carefully rearranged the pillows and again tucked me in securely. As he fussed with the sheets I caught his hand. It looked ridiculous holding on to his hand; the wasted musculature and skin, shiny and wrinkled, against his brown and brawny paw. As quickly as I could I withdrew it and, with difficulty, pulled it back under the blankets and sheets. He completed the manoeuvre for me.
“Is there anything else you need?” he asked kindly.
I need to know who you are, where I am and what is going on, I thought irritably to myself.
“You’re quite safe now.” He gazed down at me, his honey coloured eyes full of compassion. After a pause he asked curiously, “Do you remember me?”
I looked away and barely shook my head.
A look of sadness entered those eyes then he gave a quick smile and looked away.
Without my noticing the slim man had returned. The big man and the slim man shared a moment of silent communication. Then the slim man turned and gave me a blindingly beautiful smile. I felt my eyes fill with useless tears as I tried to turn my face into the pillow. Seconds later a scarred hand was brushing the tears away.
“Don’t cry. You will remember Avon. You’re just not ready for it yet.”
He knelt at the side of my bed and used a warm, wet cloth to blot my tears away. Even after I’d stopped crying he still knelt there, stroking my stringy grey hair. It felt so soothing. Provokingly a memory of this act danced just out of my reach. Still trying to capture the errant recollection I fell asleep and slept deeply and dreamlessly.
It could have been the next day or the next week, I had no knowledge of the passage of time. Although judging by the square of sky I could see through the window it appeared to be early in the day. The slim man was rinsing mugs in the sink, probably what woke me.
He dried them on a piece of brightly coloured cotton and then set them on the large table. This table defined the centre of the kitchen. I could see over it when I was sitting up in bed, or I could look under it, as now, when lying down. The slim man noticed I was awake and cocked his head.
“Good morning, would you like a drink?”
“What would you like, tea or coffee?” He didn’t look at me as he asked his casual question, which annoyed me. He must have known I didn’t speak, why make things difficult? And where was my usual nurse? He would know which beverage I preferred. The kettle on the range began to steam.
He was looking at me, enquiringly.
I took a deep breath and glared at him. Alright, if he wanted to play games. I screwed up my face to try and make the atrophied muscles work in some vague semblance of the way I needed them to.
“Off eee!” I spat at him.
He picked up one of the mugs, tossed it in the air and said,
“Coffee it is then.” And proceeded to fill a mug for me.
He’d understood me! And that hadn’t seemed to take as much effort as it usually did. Now I was confused.
He placed the mug on my little bedside table. He placed my hands palm down on the mattress, so I could push and then helped me sit up, rearranging the pillows behind me so I didn’t slide down again. Experimentally I pushed against the mattress a little. My hands spread out and pushed, making small dents in the spring covered fabric.
“It’s a bit hot yet, let it cool and I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
He was out of the door before I could reply.
“OK,” I breathed then stopped. That sounded quite reasonable even to my ears. I ordered my hands and arms to come to rest across my waist. I was dumbfounded when they obeyed! I sat and stared.
A few minutes later the slim man returned with a basket of eggs.
“Breakfast! When Roj gets out of bed that is.”
“Roj?” I questioned softly, expecting my usual coughing and hacking. But the word came out quietly and comprehensibly.
“Big guy, curly hair like mine, never shuts up? That’s Roj.” He smiled, taking the sting out of his words. Wonderingly I felt my own lips curving as well. His grin got even wider.
“You’re starting to feel better, aren’t you?”
“Es.” Alright, not quite as good, but getting there.
“Good. We’ll have you up and about in no time.”
He grabbed the smaller chair the big man usually used and sat at my bedside. His hands were slim, like the rest of him, but despite the heavy scarring looked strong enough. He picked up the mug, and guided it towards my mouth. Weakly my right hand rose to guide the other side of the mug. I wasn’t holding it, but I did manage to touch the mug as I drank the fragrant brew down to the lees. After I’d chewed my way through an egg, I didn’t slide down under the covers and sleep as I usually did. Instead I sat and watched the big man, Roj. And the slim man was correct, he never shut up, he chattered on all the time. It was an oddly soothing chatter though and I wondered if he had been doing this all the time and I just hadn’t noticed. He told me about the weather, the chickens, the gardens where someone called Tarrant worked every day. The bakery where someone else called Vila worked. The village, the vegetables, the meals he was preparing in his head, the lunch he needed to take to Tarrant. This Tarrant again.
“Tarrant?” I asked softly. I felt like I should know that name.
Roj turned to me.
“Yes, Tarrant. Slim chap, tall. Brings food home every night for us.”
Ah, the tall, slim man. “Tarrant.”
Roj smiled and went on with his work and his chatter.
I ate well that day, or I perhaps should say I managed to eat more of the meals which had been prepared for me and I felt less tired. In the evening the one named Vila arrived with a basket of pastries. As usual be picked one out, cut it up and was preparing to feed me the bits when I reached out and took a piece from the plate.
“Avon!” he crowed in delight. “Well done, that’s wonderful. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“He’s had a very good day today,” Roj agreed, Tarrant nodding by his side.
Enthusiastically Vila took a large bite of his own pasty. I felt my face move into a frown. Seeing this man eat sweet pastries really did worry me.
“No,” I whispered. “Not good.”
Vila removed the pasty he had been about to bite into.
“Not good. For you.” I tried to explain haltingly.
“Why?” he asked quite reasonably.
“Don’t know,” I admitted. “Not good. For you,” I repeated.
A scarred hand swooped down from behind Vila.
“More for me then,” Tarrant said thickly through a mouthful of the sweetmeat as he devoured the pastry.
“Hey!” Vila complained. “Tell him Roj, he’s eating my pastries.”
“I think there’s enough for everyone, Vila,” Roj replied, good naturedly uncovering the rest of the food. “You’ve brought enough for an army.”
That night I fell asleep sitting up in bed listening to the three men chattering away.
Three days later I was sitting at the large table joining Tarrant and Roj at breakfast. Quite abruptly my little bed, my little haven of peace and contentment had felt too cloying. I felt strong enough to get out of bed and do something. I wanted to do more but both men cautioned against trying to do too much. Their advice seemed sound so I took things slowly.
My pace was slow but inside a week I was helping to prepare food with Roj at the big table. After that I was allowed to sit outside in the sunshine for longer and longer periods of time.
We must have been in a temperate climate, in the season of summer, for the days seemed warm in the afternoon and the skies were blue. From the rough wooden bench I could see Tarrant working in the large garden. It seemed a lot of work for one man, the garden really was huge but he seemed to have it mastered as it provided all our food.
One evening Tarrant came back swinging his lunch basket and promising a treat for after dinner that evening. Vila showed up early, almost as if he knew. After dinner had been eaten and cleared away Tarrant fetch a cloth and laid it reverently on the table. Carefully he unfolded the fabric to reveal four perfectly ripe peaches nestling in the centre.
“You did it!” Roj said.
Vila was silent, his round eyes showing absolute appreciation.
Roj got up and fetched four small plates whilst Tarrant carefully peeled away the fuzzy outer skin, the juice running down his hands as he did so. He sliced each fruit thinly, carefully saving the stones. When we were all equipped with a plate of fruit each I took the first slice and carefully transferred it to my mouth. The taste burst across my tongue like a firework. Tart and sweet and textured. It was wonderful. I closed my eyes and chewed the fruit carefully not wishing to miss even one single nuance of taste. Then it hit me. A mental picture of Tarrant watching me eat a peach. The sun had been warm and we were in a field of such trees. He wasn’t keen on trying these unknown fruits, but I was. I had only ever seen a picture of a peach in a history vid. After I’d encouraged him to taste one of the fruits, Tarrant had become addicted. He’d loved the things; always trying to find a way to grow them wherever we happened to be, even in the rough scrub garden of the man who was to become the first freely elected President. Gerrol. Gerrol Wyntia.
When I opened my eyes Tarrant was eating with his eyes closed.
“You planted peach trees in the Presidential gardens.”
He smiled without opening his eyes. The man I could see in my head planting and nurturing those seed stones had grey hair, the man sitting opposite me had hair which was hardly touched with grey.
“Was that you?” I asked.
He nodded. I picked up another slice of fruit.
“These taste a lot better than Gerrol’s ever did.”
Beside me Vila sniggered whilst Roj laughed openly.
“He never could leave them alone long enough to ripen,” Tarrant replied, without opening his eyes.
Several days later I was helping prepare food, tidying and generally pulling my weight. Privately I could not believe how strong and well I was feeling. My memory was still full of holes although on a day to day basis I could remember what had happened. Roj told me I had become very sick and bedridden; unable to communicate properly or even feed myself before I’d been brought to his home. My hands, which were now preparing vegetables for dinner, had lost their skinny unhealthy appearance. Whilst I wasn’t about to win any marathons, I knew I was getting stronger day by day.
“How about we take lunch and eat with Tarrant,” I asked, as I packed Tarrant’s mid-day meal.
“Fine by me,” Roj replied, diving into the pantry and emerging with a bigger basket.
We packed enough for the three of us and plenty of water in metal bottles. He was working the further acres today. We strolled down to him, unloading the food and setting it out picnic style. Tarrant stood from where he’d been crouching over a bed of plants, rubbed his left leg vigorously as he did so, stamped his foot and then walked across to us. Even all these years after crash landing Scorpio his leg must still bother him, I thought. He reached down to pick up his spade, the scarring on his graceful hands stretching the puckered skin.
Tarrant was a pilot, not a gardener.
Across the fields Vila was making his way towards us. There was plenty of food to share, Roj had seen to that.
Vila - Vila was a thief not a master baker.
I turned and looked at the big man settling down beside me.
Roj, Roj Blake.
His face wasn’t scarred any more and his hair was as dark as it had been when I’d first met him.
“Avon?” Blake was offering me the bottle of water. I took a swallow and passed it back. The water was cool and sweet.
“None of this is real, is it?” I asked.
Blake tried to laugh around the mouthful of water.
“I thought you’d gone quiet,” he remarked as he swallowed.
“Your idea?” I asked him.
“All of us really.”
I looked around at the three men sitting around me, casually eating lunch.
“What do you remember?” Blake asked softly.
I turned and looked at Tarrant, my memory returning. “Your ship was shot down, three years before the end of the wars. The fire crews couldn’t get to you in time. You were so badly burnt and we didn’t have enough medical supplies to help you. You couldn’t even hold a blaster to kill yourself.”
I clenched my fists, the memory so painful. Tarrant reached out and took my hands, smoothing out my fingers, his own hands pale and strong and oddly, no longer scarred.
“So you attacked a federation facility and stole their supplies of morphalin for me and sat with me for the week it took me to die, stroking my hair so I’d know I hadn’t been left alone, even though I couldn’t see or hear anything.”
“Your hair was about the only thing not burnt or broken,” I said simply. “I couldn’t hurt you doing that.”
I looked at the whole young man sitting on the grass at my feet. He looked just as he had before constant warfare had made him cynical and old before his time.
“What about me?” Vila asked, his eyes twinkling.
“You had a massive allergic reaction to the celebration cakes on Dellar nine. Nearly caused an inter-galactic incident until the medical computer picked out the cause of death.”
“And you moved heaven and earth to get my body back and then sat with me in the medical wing until you were certain I was dead. I was jumping up and down in front of you trying to tell you I was fine, but I couldn’t make you hear.”
“Yes. I was. That’s why I wanted to be here for you.”
“Me too,” Tarrant added. “You put yourself at risk even though you knew I wouldn’t survive for long, to make my last few days pain free. I wanted to give some of that back.”
I was silent for a minute.
“I got very sick, didn’t I?” I asked at length remembering the frustration and pain of not being able to make my body and brain carry out my will.
“You had a massive cerebral vascular accident fifteen months ago,” Blake replied.
“Am I dead?” I asked, after a pause.
“I was too confused to realise I had died, wasn’t I?”
Tarrant nodded. “It happens quite a lot. People don’t realise they’ve come over so others who want to do so help them to remember what happened to them.”
I looked at first Tarrant and then Vila.
“I can almost imagine why you both might want to help me, but I can’t imagine why you would want to do so,” I said honestly, looking at Blake. “You were unarmed and I shot you.”
“And how long have you been feeling unbearably guilty over that? Forty-seven, forty-eight years?”
“Does it matter how long I survived afterwards? I still murdered you.”
Blake smiled and replied,
“It was an amalgamation of my arrogance and misunderstandings.”
“You could have had a long and productive life, seen the first free elections take place, perhaps even have been elected President.”
He shook his head then took another drink of water.
“No, I couldn’t. It was your guilt pushing you helped win those wars. If I’d survived there may not have been free elections.”
I was dead and I still didn’t understand Blake. Tarrant and Vila smiled, almost as if they’d heard my thoughts. Tarrant looked at me and I heard his voice although his mouth didn’t move.
“We do hear thoughts and send them. We had to speak though to get you to see you were no longer ill.”
That did make sense, of a sort. But I still don’t understand why Blake would look after me like he has been doing.
“Can’t you?” he said out loud. “Perhaps when you do know, you’ll also know why I wanted to help you. Come on.”
“Where are we going?” I asked, a little confused but getting to my feet and shaking the crumbs off.
Blake nodded towards what had been the little wooden house. In its place a beautiful light shone, spreading its rays all over. Tarrant and Vila rushed past him in their efforts to rejoin the light, their bodies quickly becoming one with the ever spreading circle of luminosity. Their joy as they re-entered the light covered us.
“You always wondered if such a being existed at the back of your scientific mind, didn’t you?”
I looked at Blake wide-eyed. I had never, ever discussed this with anyone. Of that I was totally certain.
Blake took my hand and walked forward with me. The closer to the light we walked the more I felt myself dissolving, becoming one with this most wondrous of creatures, my essence being taken in and total and perfect understanding becoming mine. Words are not adequate to describe what I was feeling. I stopped our forward progress and turned to Blake, who was shining as brightly as I felt myself to be doing.
“I forgave you the second I got here, Avon,” Blake said. “I waited because I wanted to make sure you forgave yourself.”