Having flickered on the edge of death for over two weeks, Abraham Jones opens his steely-grey eyes to the world of the living. He looks curiously around his assembled relatives, resting on each just long enough to answer questions that are known only to him. They variously smile back, dab swollen eyes or flick over a page of the newspaper bought for him each day, more in hope than expectation.
To the assembled, Abe was announcing himself markedly improved simply by awareness of his surroundings and by not rolling his eyes up into his head, where they had resided during previous openings. One might say that he looked a new man: refreshed; much improved; quite unexpected. One might even say that he had an intimidating look about him for a dying fellow – angry in fact. Seething perhaps.
With a noticeable tremor he slowly raised his right hand from the precisely turned down white sheet and pointed it unsteadily to his mouth. Ange, from her sentinel position by the pillow, picked up another of the moist mouth-care lollipops and made to offer it up to him as she had innumerable times over the last few weeks. He made a weak attempt at roughly pushing the thing away and, getting the message, Ange replaced it on the bed-side unit. When she turned around, her dad was pointing to the water jug on the bed tray. She picked up a clean plastic beaker and half filled it from the jug, wondering when it had last been refreshed.
“Isn’t he meant to be ‘Nil by Mouth’?” challenged officious Aunt Alice from the end of the bed.
Abe visibly winced. A nurse in blue cotton overalls and practiced good humour, sporting a small collection of cheap plastic pens in her pocket, leaned around the curtain from the adjoining bed with the official answer.
“Try him with a small mouthful, but stop immediately if he starts to choke.”
She smiled quickly and efficiently before disappearing again behind the curtain. Alice pushed her mouth around the side of her face and looked out across the railway line with her “Let’s see!” look in her hardened eyes. Ange gingerly held the cup to Abe’s lips, careful not to spill it. He slurped messily at the water, but didn’t choke, to Alice’s evident annoyance, and eventually emptied the beaker.
“Do you want some more?” Ange asked.
Abe nodded once. She passed it across the bed to Shiela and her mum refilled the small cup, passing it quickly back.
“Well done Abe” called out his brother-in-law Peter, encouragingly, as though praising an accurate pass on the football pitch.
A conversation between sisters-in-law and wife was conducted above him as though he was already dead and gone: “I can’t believe he drank all that in his state, can you?”
“I thought he wasn’t able to swallow anything anymore – shut down” put in Alice, helpfully.
Ange, meanwhile, offered the beaker a second time. Abe, never taking his eyes off his hand, a picture of concentration, reached out and took hold of it himself and pulled it from her. He put it to his lips and downed it like a half pint of his favourite beer at the end of a long, hot shift at the factory. His face lit dimly with a passing smile.
Suddenly he coughed, spluttered – to a glare of “Told you so” looks beamed at Ange – and produced a large thick plug of grey-green sputum, which he delivered into the polystyrene pot beside him. Ange took the pot. Abe let out a rasping sigh and, for the first time in two weeks, the family heard his voice.
“Thank you, love” he half-whispered.
“I’m glad you’re all here. I’ve got something to tell you”, he addressed them all with a weak smile; a slight twinkle in his eye.