“Just bloody move, will you?”
Dan Williams was running late. After driving around the car park five times looking for a place to park, he’d finally spotted the reversing lights glowing on a Fiat Panda. Dan had stopped his car and backed up to allow the Panda to reverse out. But its driver was still sitting there, seemingly oblivious to the situation behind him.
“For God’s sake man! Come on! I’m giving you the space!” Dan yelled, holding out the palm of his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, Dan spotted a car creeping around the car park, most likely drawn to the Panda’s reversing lights like a moth. Worse still, the air con in Dan’s ageing Toyota had packed in on the hottest day of the summer so far. A bead of sweat rolled down Dan’s forehead, down his nose and dropped silently onto his lap.
Finally, after a full minute, the Panda began to budge backwards. Painfully slowly, the driver – an old man – reversed out. He gingerly raised his bony hand to thank Dan, before clutching around to find first gear. He eventually found it and drove off at a snail’s pace.
Dan swiftly moved his car into the vacant space and turned his engine off. He reached over to pick up his bag from the passenger seat but as he pulled it towards him, its contents spilt out and into the passenger’s footwell. Dan growled.
“God. I hate my stupid life!” he scowled, reaching over to scoop up his textbooks and pens. He dumped them all into his bag and yanked open his car door to get out. Unfortunately, he’d only left himself a few inches from the car next to him and his door hit the car next to his with an almighty thump.
It was a good five minutes before Dan had finally repositioned his car and hot-footed it across the car park of the hospital. He hurriedly walked through the automatic doors of the entrance and out of the searing summer sun. He approached the desk where a young nurse was sitting.
“Hi. My name’s Dan and I’m here to tutor Ollie.”
“Ah yes,” replied the nurse. “You’re the GCSE English teacher, right?”
“That’s it. A bit late, I’m afraid. It’s been a nightmare. Traffic’s terrible and I couldn’t find anywhere to park.”
“Oh no. That’s not good. Ollie’s just through that door and down the corridor. Last door on the left. I’ll buzz you in.” She pointed to the door, which Dan approached and opened. He’d been hoping that the air-conditioning at the hospital would have offered him some respite but the corridor was hot and airless.
A stuffy children’s hospital ward was the last place he wanted to be on a hot summer’s afternoon.
A few of the doors along the corridor were open and Dan instinctively peered in as he passed. In one room, a child was curled up asleep and in another, a child was sitting in her chair, watching her iPad. Neither of the children had hair.
Dan arrived at the last door on the left and tapped on the small window.
“Come in,” came a voice from inside. Dan pushed down on the heavy handle and opened the door.
Ollie was sat up in bed, looking at his laptop. He looked up as Dan opened the door and smiled. Ollie’s teeth looked off-white compared to his pale face and on his head, he wore a black bandana. His lack of eyebrows made his bright blue eyes look like saucers.
“Hi buddy. Are you ok?” asked Dan, shifting into the room.
“Do I look ok?” replied Ollie.
Dan couldn’t tell whether Ollie was being sarcastic or genuine.
“I’m Dan, your new English tutor.”
“Cool. Come on in.” Ollie beckoned Dan in, closed his laptop and placed it on his bedside table.
Dan looked around the room for a place to sit. The obvious place would have been the chair next to the bed but it was strewn with clothes and wires. Instead, he spotted a plastic chair and pulled it over to sit alongside Ollie.
“Thanks for coming. How long are you here for?” asked Ollie.
“Yep. You can learn a lot in an hour,” replied Dan confidently.
“What will I be learning today?”
“Well, it’s more of a kind of getting to know you lesson this one. I can find out a bit more about you and you can find out a bit more about me. To see if we can work together.”
“Ok. That sounds cool,” said Ollie. “Where do we start?”
“I thought it’d be a good idea for you to jot down a short autobiography to get us going. That way, I can get to know a bit about you and assess where you are with your handwriting ability too.”
“You want me to hand write it?”
“Are you able?”
“I do everything on my laptop these days.”
“I’d prefer it if was hand-written so that I can see the standard of your cursive writing.”
“You mean joined-up writing?”
Ollie pursed his lips before agreeing. “You got pen and paper?” he asked.
Dan opened up his bag before realising that he didn’t have any.
“Erm. Actually. We’ll have to use your laptop. I forgot to bring paper.”
“That’s ok,” replied Ollie, pulling his laptop onto his lap and opening it.
“Sorry,” said Dan. “It’s been one of those days. I’m just so tired. I just wish I could stay in bed all day.”
Ollie looked up from his laptop, raised a non-existent eyebrow and looked quizzically at Dan.
“Gosh. I’m sorry,” said Dan, closing his bag uncomfortably and popping it under his seat. “Ok. I’ll give you ten minutes to come up with a short autobiography. Just tell me a bit about yourself.”
Ollie opened up a new document and started typing. For Dan, it was the first chance he’d had to catch his breath all day. He gazed around the room. A half-eaten rice pudding, a jug of water and an open pack of Jammie Dodgers biscuits.
After ten minutes, Dan took the laptop and sat in silence while he read. He read out Ollie’s last sentence:
“I’m going to make it out of here and make the most of my life for my friends that never made it.”
Dan looked up at Ollie, who was pouring a small bottle of lemonade into his mouth.
“I like that. Positivity is good. Are you a positive person?”
Ollie opened his mouth to answer but instead of an answer, out came a thunderous belch that swept through the room and bounced off the clinically cream walls.
Ollie looked at Dan quite stunned and then exploded into laughter. He clutched his tummy, scrunched up his face and squawked like some kind of dinosaur. Dan couldn’t help but laugh with him and for several minutes, they collapsed in laughter. Every time they looked at each other, they’d start again.
“Jeez. Where did that come from?” asked Dan finally.
“From the depths of hell! I felt like I was in The Exorcist!” shrieked Ollie, his eyes watering. It took a good few minutes for them to gather their senses. Dan hadn’t laughed like that for years. His stomach ached. All that laughter for just one perfectly-timed burp!
“And just for clarity,” said Dan, “a burp is not an answer. Right. Where were we?”
Dan put on his serious face and looked at the laptop again. “Ah yes. Tell me about the watch you’re wearing.”
Ollie raised his wrist and showed Dan his watch. It was a small black Casio with a plastic wristband.
“My friend Paul gave it to me,” said Ollie.
“That’s kind,” said Dan.
“Yeah. Paul was admitted to this place the same day as me. He gave me this watch before he left, and told me to make the most of my time.”
“When was he discharged?”
Dan felt a dagger in his chest.
“I’m so sorry.”
“That’s ok. That’s why I’m grateful that I’m still here every time I open my eyes.”
“It can’t be easy.”
“Nothing is. But hey. I’ve got a roof over my head, room service, a TV, a laptop, and foxy nurses giving me TLC all day. And it’s all for free. I’m pretty blessed really.”
Dan smiled. “I’m sorry I moaned about my life when I first got here.”
“Hey man. We’ve all got troubles. Yours are just different to mine.”
“Did you always want to be a teacher?” asked Ollie.
“Not really. I kind of fell into it.”
“What did you want to be?”
“I wanted to become a novelist.”
“What’s stopped you?”
“The bills that come through my letterbox. I just don’t get the time.”
“I’ve got all the time in the world. In fact, I’ve got too much time on my hands. Want to swap?”
Dan had to think about his reply. Ollie sensed Dan’s discomfort and picked up the packet of biscuits.
“Want a Jammie Dodger?” he asked.
Dan took a biscuit and bit into it. He took his time chewing it to avoid having to answer any further awkward questions.
“I was thinking earlier,” said Ollie. “If you had to flip a coin and heads makes your life better, and tails makes it worse, would you toss the coin?” asked Ollie.
And for the next 45 minutes, the pair discussed life, death and everything in between.
Before he knew it, Dan looked at the wall clock and realised his hour was done.
“That’s it for today, I’m afraid. That went quickly!”
“Thanks. I enjoyed that.”
Dan stood up.
“It’s so hot in here. Can you open the window before you go please?” asked Ollie. Dan reached over and pulled at the window handle next to him.
“You need to give it a good whack,” said Ollie.
The window finally creaked open, just as a few large spots of rain appeared on the pane.
“It’s raining! I’m so glad!” exclaimed Dan. The rain pit-pattered on the window and for once, a cool breeze drifted into the room. Ollie closed his eyes and inhaled deeply through his nose.
“Mm. Smell that. Petrichor,” said Ollie, his eyes still closed.
“Petrichor. The smell of the rain after a dry spell. It comes from the Greek words ‘petra’, meaning stone, and ‘ichor’. In Greek mythology, ‘ichor’ refers to the golden fluid that flows in the veins of the immortals.”
“Oh,” replied Dan, impressed. “I never knew that,” he said, packing up his bag.
“You can have that one for free. Impress your students with it.”
“I might just do that.”
Ollie tutted and gently shook his head. “Sheesh. Call yourself an English teacher?”
Dan laughed. Ollie had a point.
“Same time next week?” said Dan.
He picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. A quick fear that he might come back to an empty bed flashed through his mind.
“Yep. Look forward to it,” replied Ollie. And with that, Dan left the room and headed back down the corridor. He passed the children in their beds, fighting their own battles alone. Dan knew he had his children to go home to and tonight, he’d hug them a bit tighter and a bit longer.
The automatic doors trundled open and Dan stepped out under the entrance’s shelter. He took a look out into the rain, gurgling in the drains and soaking into the parched earth. He closed his eyes and took in a chestful of the cool, clean air. It flowed through every vein in his body, refreshing and vitalising every sinew along the way.
“Petrichor,” he said to himself. “Through the veins of the immortals.” He thought about his novels. And he knew he had to make them happen before time robbed him of the opportunity.
He smiled calmly and took the car keys out of his pocket.
He’d learnt a lot in an hour.