‘Wake up Connie, it’s time for tea.’
She felt a light touch on her shoulder and she smiled at the warm, friendly voice she knew was raised slightly, just in case. Before she opened her eyes she could smell the strong, tannin smell of the tea and hear the rattle of biscuits on a plate. She kept her eyes squeezed shut a moment longer, savouring the anticipation of the bitter tea, made sweeter by the lump of sugar she really shouldn’t have.
The treat of tea and biscuits was somewhat diminished when she opened her eyes and saw two sad-looking, slightly limp Garibaldi biscuits sitting lonely in the middle of a bile-green plate. Garibaldis had never been her favourite; squashed fly biscuits they used to call them, and she longed for the sickly sweet artificiality of a custard cream. She couldn’t see how strong the tea was, because the plastic beaker had a sip lid, to ‘prevent unsightly spills.’ Connie sipped the luke-warm, sugarless liquid gratefully as the nurse held the cup to her lips. The hum of the hospital came back into focus.
‘The consultant will be round to see you shortly,’ the nurse said, wiping a stiff paper napkin across the tea dribble on Connie’s chin.
Connie shut her eyes silently, a faint smile all she could muster in response.
‘With any luck, you’ll be heading home soon,’ the nurse said, so loudly now that the whole ward could hear. ‘You should be able to spend Christmas at home after all’. A fragment of soggy Garibaldi got stuck in Connie’s throat and she spluttered, and the nurse sat her up and made her sip cool tea until the sensation of choking passed.
‘There, there,’ the nurse soothed her, ‘we don’t want a Garibaldi biscuit to be the end of you, do we dear? Not after all you’ve been through.’
‘Thank you,’ Connie managed to croak out, her lungs wheezing from the effort. The nurse gave her a little oxygen from the bottle by her bed.
‘Pneumonia’s no joke, is it love?’ the nurse said sympathetically, ‘but you must be cut from tough cloth, doctor said it’s a miracle you survived.’ Connie flopped forward as the nurse plumped her pillow. ‘Ninety-two years and still going strong; I just hope I’m as resilient at your age. Only a few more years and you’ll be getting your telegram from the Queen.’
The nurse walked away, leaving Connie alone, watching all the other patients surrounded by visitors, the aftertaste of Garibaldi biscuit on her tongue.
The consultant took Connie’s pulse, and scrutinised her chart closely, listening to her chest with his ice-cold stethoscope. She realised he was pronouncing her fit and well, at least as fit and well as the NHS bed shortages deemed you needed to be in order to be sent home.
‘An ambulance will take you home first thing in the morning,’ the consultant said, leaning in so closely she could smell the onion on his breath. ‘You’re lucky to be alive, Miss Taylor,’ he bellowed.
‘It’s my lungs don’t work, not my ears,’ Connie thought, but did not say.
‘At your age, it’s a miracle you survived such a severe bout of pneumonia,’ he continued, and the whole ward listened, ‘but as long as you take your medication you should get back to rights before long.’ He smiled and signed off her prescription as his eyes slid along to the next bed.
The paramedic carried her bag to her front door, while Connie fumbled for her keys.
‘Happy Christmas’, he called back to her, and his fleeting smile lingered long in her mind while she shuffled slowly through the quiet rooms.
Connie coughed heavily and turned the thermostat up to 25°C. In the sitting room an empty teacup still sat beside her chair; the cold tea had formed a thick film around the inside of the cup. Connie spotted a few stray custard cream crumbs on the carpet, the last thing she had eaten before she’d called the ambulance. Through the open curtains Connie could see the Christmas lights twinkling in the neighbours’ windows and kids getting ready for bed in upstairs rooms, excitedly putting up stockings ready for the morning. She sat down beside the cold teacup and fell into a fitful sleep.
A noise woke her, shrill and surprising, and she thought for a moment she was back in the safety of the ward, until she realised she was sitting in the darkness as the doorbell rang again. Connie wheezed her way to the front door.
It was the lady from across the street, whose name escaped Connie, but whose children were no doubt safely tucked up in bed, dreaming of Father Christmas.
‘Come in,’ Connie said shakily, and the woman followed Connie into her kitchen, carrying a heavy bag.
‘I heard you were coming out today, so I picked you up a few things while I was in Sainsbury’s,’ she said, unloading milk, tea, bread, custard creams and a box of mince pies. In a Tupperware was a stew; ‘just pop it in the microwave and it’ll be ready in no time. I’m afraid it’s only the leftovers of our meal,’ the woman said, taking Connie’s cold hand in hers. Connie clasped the hand tightly. ‘Oh, and if you don’t yet have plans for tomorrow I wondered if you’d like to join us for Christmas dinner? It’s nothing fancy I’m afraid, and the kids can get a bit noisy, but…’
‘I would love to, thank you,’ Connie whispered.
‘That’s settled then. I’ll send Ian over to get you about 12,’ the woman said, gradually releasing Connie’s grip and patting her hand as she said goodbye.
Connie stood at the front door, watching the woman retreat safely back into her warm living room, with its sparkling Christmas tree. Connie imagined herself sitting there tomorrow, with a mince pie and a glass of wine; ‘The doctors say it’s a miracle I’m still alive,’ she said into the cold Christmas air, as she closed the door and went in search of a custard cream.
Written by Jessica Katharine Whyte from the keyword Miracle.