‘Is there a clue then?’
If you’d blinked you would have missed it. One cough from Mr Peterson and it would have been lost. But Alfie had heard her. It was as though his senses had been poised, ready to snatch her words from the air.
She’d spoken. She’d actually spoken to him!
He wanted to shout it out loud so the entire ward knew what a ground-breaking moment this was. But instead he smiled and waited, biding his time. His whole brain buzzed with excitement.
‘Is there a clue or not?’ The voice, a little louder now, was tinged with frustration. Her voice had an intriguing lilt to it, the shadow of an Irish accent lurking gingerly in the background. It spoke of wide-open spaces, of luscious greenery and bracing winds. There was a beauty to it but he could also sense the defensiveness, the anger and the fiery edges waiting to attack.
‘Sorry, I got lost in my thoughts for a second. No, there isn’t a clue. It’s not a crossword puzzle. It’s more of a . . . visual challenge.’ He couldn’t stop the smile on his face from seeping into his voice. Thank goodness the curtain was drawn, or he could see a bedpan being thrown in his direction very shortly.
‘Well, how can I help when I can’t see it?’ The fire licked her every word – he could feel the heat in the air.
Suddenly, through the curtain a hand appeared. Just one pale hand with nails bitten down to their red-raw beds and friendship groups of freckles scattered across the surface. If it hadn’t been only one inch from his face, he would have told himself he was dreaming.
Slowly, he reached over and handed her the book.
‘It’s on page 136.’
He waited. Listening.
A scratch of the pen maybe? Or was that Mr Peterson rearranging his paper underwear again?
Just as he was about to try and offer more words as an olive branch, he heard something hit the floor on his side of the divide.
The puzzle book lay on the floor by his bed. In normal circumstances he would have made a sarcastic comment about respecting the disabled, but he knew he needed to tread carefully so, resourceful as ever, he used one of his crutches to drag the book closer before reaching down silently and picking it up.
He opened the book to page 136.
Alfie couldn’t stop the laughter erupting out of him. On his dot-to-dot, she’d carefully and very artistically joined the dots to spell the word ‘arsehole’.
‘Oh, I see. Well yes, of course, when it’s right in front of you like that it suddenly becomes very obvious.’
‘Goodbye, Alfie.’ The fire in her words had receded and what was left was a warm glow.
He folded the page with a sweet satisfaction. Just as he was about to tell her that he wasn’t going anywhere so there was no real need for goodbyes yet, Alfie stopped himself. Enough had been said already for today.
One step towards the end, and all that.