The imposing Routledge Manor sat in over three hundred hectares of beautifully manicured gardens of lawns, decorative beds and woodland, surrounding a lake, which itself covered nearly three acres.

The estate was walled in an ancient red brick and fronted by two large pillars, each surmounted by an impressive stone eagle, which appeared to be about to pounce on those who entered.

Through the huge, intricately wrought gates, a long serpentine drive, dressed in gravel, wound its way between neatly clipped boxwood hedges and tall spiral-clipped firs, finally opening out on a wide keyhole-shaped area, where wide shallow steps led up to the studded oak doors of the house itself.

The manor’s owner, Lord Granger had at one time used the place as a weekend retreat, but the family’s fortunes had changed dramatically since then and rather than going the route of so many impoverished peers, he saw business sense in the manor’s commercial usage. Nowadays, Routledge Manor served as a rest home for the elderly that could afford it and a horticultural college. 

Combining the two had been a stroke of genius. It offered the residents wonderfully romantic views from the windows of their large airy rooms, whilst the horticulturalists, got to see their efforts commercially appreciated.

 

*        *        *

 

James Spratt, ‘Jack’ to his friends, had lived at Routledge Manor for the last three years. Now an octogenarian, James was almost bed-ridden. He suffered from osteoporosis, or ‘brittle bones’ disease amongst other things and his lack of mobility made him surly and bad tempered. It was something that had worsened noticeably over the last year.

He had suffered a stroke just eighteen months earlier and since then, his condition had deteriorated. He had gone from being a quiet, pleasantly unassuming man to a tyrannical old goat, with all the social graces of a crocodile with toothache, often needing little or no reason to go into a rage. Needless to say, this had the effect of alienating him from the other residents and staff alike, but it didn’t stop him. 

Mostly, he took his vexations out on the staff and since many of the nurses were trainees, he seemed to delight in tormenting them the most. Almost daily, a young student nurse would run from his room in tears after an encounter with the now infamous Mr. Spratt, vowing never to set foot in his room or be in his presence again.

The Matron, Mrs. Marian Jeffries, was used to this and classed it as part of the training. She saw Mr. Spratt as an object lesson, something these poor unsuspecting nurses were likely to encounter in other areas of their work and a valuable teaching aid, telling the nurses “you’re not always going to be appreciated, ladies” adding “you’d best get used to it.” 

Not one of the nurses would readily agree to clean or administer to his needs, so the staff would draw lots to see who would have to bear the brunt of his whip-like tongue and foul temper. This became an accepted daily ritual unless there was a new girl amongst them of course! Then, they would take bets on how long the poor, unsuspecting student nurse would last in the room with him, but it was never very long, most commonly measured in seconds rather than minutes.

 

*        *        *

 

 Marian climbed out of her car in the parking area, situated to the west of the house at five-thirty on Wednesday morning. It was the only area that had had tarmac laid and was lit by three lights on a pole in the centre. This was a safety measure in case of accidents or more precisely, to help prevent them. The gravel was too easy to stumble over and the well-lit car park neatly marked, made it all much safer in the dark, such as it was this very morning.

She hung her coat on a hook and looked at the roster for the day. Nurse George was on leave and it looked as though she would have to make the rounds herself. She took her clipboard from her desk and stepped into the hallway towards the nurse’s office. 

“Morning, ladies,” she said brightly. “Anything I need to know about?”

“Mrs. Gough was moaning again, but we gave her a mild sedative and she’s been sleeping like a baby ever since,” said the nurse, sitting in front of an array of TV screens that showed images from the CCTV system covering the entire house and car park. 

“Good,” said the Matron. “I’ll get doctor Stevens to give her a quick once-over later. Anything else?” she asked as she leafed through the pages on her clipboard and wrote ‘doctor’ against Mrs. Gough’s name on the list.

“Not a sausage, Matron. It’s been quiet.” 

“Good-oh,” chirped the matron and made her way out of the office to the lift, pressing the button for the top floor. The old lift creaked and rattled as it made its way ponderously to the very top of the house, jerking to a halt when it reached the floor requested.

It was quiet. It always was at this time of the morning and her crepe-soled shoes squeaked as she walked the polished wood floors, checking that all the doors were locked. It may have seemed prison-like, but often the patients would be found wandering the corridors, oblivious to where they were and since all the rooms were equipped with bathrooms, it was felt safer if the doors were locked during the night, when only a handful of staff were on duty.

 

*        *        *

 

James was asleep and snoring gently when the nurse stepped into his room at six-thirty. He opened his eyes just a crack and saw a tall slender woman at his wardrobe, pulling out his clothing for the day.

His sleep-befuddled mind had not quite started to function fully and his unfocussed eyes were sure he recognised her, but so soon after waking, he was unable to pursue it. Instead, he let his eyes close again and his train of thought took off using the vague recognition as its route. 

“Wakey, wakey!” said Elizabeth, her arms stretched wide as she parted the curtains of their London Flat, overlooking St. James’ Park.

“Good God woman. What time is it?” mumbled James. 

“It’s time to enjoy a beautiful sunrise.”

“I’m still asleep.” 

“Not anymore!” she said with a chuckle getting into bed beside him. She was naked and that never failed to get his attention. She snuggled up to him and he could smell the perfume she always seemed to wear. It was a fragrance with a lingering smell like lavender. He liked her smell.

He turned to face her, feeling her body crushing against his. 

“See? You’re all awake now!”

No matter how much he saw of Liz, he couldn’t help but think how lucky he was, how fortunate that she had fallen for him. He felt like a dog with two tails, never knowing which to chase and which to wag!

 

*        *        *

 

“Are you awake?” 

“Hmm?”

“Wake up, Jack.” 

He opened his eyes, his tool aching, rock solid under the bedding. It hadn’t done that for many years and he reached down to touch it while his eyes tried to focus upon where the voice was coming from.

“Naughty, naughty!” the voice admonished and he jerked his hand back, still desperately trying to see who it was; who was talking to him, that voice sounding so familiar, yet at the same time, beyond his grasp. His mind worked in overdrive, as long-forgotten memories flashed through his mind, fleetingly touching upon his consciousness. 

“Jack?”

“Jack?” he thought. “No-one has called me Jack in years.” But as the fog in his mind cleared, he began seeing things more clearly. 

“Jack?” said Liz as they say on the banks of the Thames. They were in Oxford, looking for property, deciding that a more sedate lifestyle might be in order. “What did you think of that last place?”

James remembered the property well. They lived there for nearly twenty-five years. 

“I like it.”

“Really?” she asked. 

He knew she did and if it was in his power to give it to her, he had to. “Yes, really,” he assured her.

“Oh Jack, I love you so much!” she said throwing her arms round him and hugging him tight enough to take his breath away. 

“I know,” he replied. “I love you too,” he whispered, hugging her back and they sat there on the banks of the river, with the weeping willows forming a backdrop that cast a dappled shade upon water’s surface before them.

 

*        *        *

 

“Come on Jack, up you get,” said that voice once again.

Jacks eyes opened slowly and he peered at the person leaning over him, the images from his dream melting into nothingness. 

“What the hell kind of time is this to be waking an old man for God’s sake?!” He demanded.

“Time to enjoy a beautiful sunrise,” she smiled turning down the bed. He glowered as once again, that feeling of recognition hovered just behind or beyond his conscious mind and he looked intently at the woman above him. The nurse was not perturbed and merely returned his icy stare with a warm smile above her perfectly starched uniform. 

He continued to fuss, moan and curse as the nurse attempted to dress him, but despite his many vituperations, the nurse remained calm and pleasant. If anything, she just smiled more broadly. She actually drew a deep breath and paused ever-so-slightly after one particularly obnoxious outburst, which ordinarily would have had the other nurses running for cover.

“You’re a feisty one and no mistake,” he said and smiled at her. Then a quizzical look crossed his face as he looked at the woman, but he just shrugged and the rest of the procedure went quite smoothly. A thought suddenly struck him. 

“Isn’t it a bit early for breakfast?” The nurse stood and smoothed down the front of her uniform.

“I thought I’d take you for a stroll round the garden. The fresh air will do you good. It might at least calm your potty-mouth down a bit.” James sat bolt upright in his bed, regretting the movement as soon as he’d made it and turned the air blue once again with a volley of expletives. 

“You’re going to do what?” he said with look of profound incredulity. “You know the garden’s out of bounds. That old trout the Matron has stopped me going out there; stopped anyone as I understand it. She’ll flay you alive if she catches us and I dread to think what I’ll get.” Then he grinned impishly. “It will be fun to see her face though won’t it?” he chuckled.

Now dressed, James was looking forward to his trip outside. He hadn’t been out for ages and suddenly, this one nurse, one he felt sure he’d seen before, but curiously, couldn’t place, seemed intent upon getting him out there. 

Who was she?

She seemed impervious to his language, his outrageous insults and even his stares, which normally made the nurses feel uncomfortable enough to leave. Not this one. She had something alright - courage and despite her having woken him from his dreams, stopped him doing something with his first stiffy in God knows how long, he was warming to her. There was something about her, a vaguely familiar fragrance.

 

*        *        *

 

The matron was on the second floor. The “squeak, squeak, squeak” of her shoes, ringing down the empty corridor. 

She loved this place. It was probably the biggest building that wasn’t a hospital she’d ever worked in, oozing character and history from every stair, wall, moulding or rug. What a place to work.

She exited through the heavily sprung fire door at the end of the corridor and made her way downstairs to the first floor.

 

*        *        *

 

“You could have got me one of those electric chairs,” grumbled the old man. 

“No need. I’m here and I’m perfectly capable.”

“You sure about this?” he asked, twisting round in the chair, trying to look at the tall, slim nurse that was pushing him down the corridor; the woman that looked so familiar, yet not at the same time. 

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

James grinned. He hadn’t had this much fun since Elizabeth… a tear ran down his cheek at the memory of that astonishing woman, the woman he would have done anything for. He thought back to happier times…

 

*        *        *

 

James sat in the garden, his hat over his face as he reclined on the chair on the patio outside the dining room. The birds chirped and flapped as they fought for seeds and nuts that Elizabeth put into nets and dishes on the bird table. 

“Why don’t you come and sit down?” he asked.

“I will. I can’t just leave this. The birds won’t feed themselves you know.” He had to smile. She had a logic all of her own and many’s the time she would bamboozle him with a bit of it, give him one of those looks and leave him in a state of utter confusion with no option but to concur, or whatever the appropriate action or response should be. 

They shared everything and this was one of those times. James was on a break from work and whilst they weren’t able to enjoy a holiday as such, being able to just sit or stroll around their garden was a break in itself.

“Come and see the new bed,” she said. He looked up at her and they went to the other end of the garden hand in hand. 

“It’s not planted out yet, but it will be soon. We’ll have geraniums and lobelias, oh, and some roses in the middle. What do you think?”

“I think it’s marvellous! I think you’re marvellous too!” and he swept her into his arms, kissing her. 

“Not here, Jack. Someone will see!”

“To hell with them!” he said and held her tightly returning to the kiss and more as the birds continued to flutter back and forth from snug nests to ripe nuts and seeds on the sunny table. 

“Hmmm,” she purred. “We should come out here more often.”

 

*        *        *

 

 “Are you warm enough?” the nurse asked, jerking him rudely from his sun drenched garden to the slightly damp and misty morning of the present.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he replied. 

She continued to push him out into the garden and he wondered how it was they got to this point, but they were there now and the sun was just starting to turn the horizon blood red.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” 

“It certainly is,” he agreed.

They stopped at a bench that overlooked the pond and she helped him off of the wheelchair. Again, that vague fragrance of lavender came into his nostrils, but this time, he wasn’t sure whether it was the nurse or the fragrance of the flowers in the garden. 

“This is a first,” he said.

“That’s sad,” said the nurse. “We should come out here more often.” 

He blinked and looked at the nurse. She was paying him no attention whatsoever and was pushing his wheelchair out of the way, so they could look at the view without interruptions.

“I know you, don’t I?” he asked. 

“Probably,” she answered cryptically. She touched his hand and pointed at the sky. He looked up and the sun was just starting to rise. The clouds were a lilac colour, while the sky around was many shades of pinks, golds, reds and yellows, constantly changing as the sun climbed into the sky. They sat in silence as the spectacle continued, neither taking their eyes from the scene that was unfolding in front of them, all of it reflected in the lake.

“Why did you do this?” he asked her, the sun now the familiar yellow ball and the sky, its usual blue. 

“I thought it would be nice. Didn’t you enjoy it?”

“Very much so, thank you,” he replied. “But you have risked so much and I have been so rude.” 

“I know, but I also know why and that’s something that the other nurses don’t take into consideration.”

“You do?” 

“I do.”

“You’re not a nurse though are you?” 

“Today I am.”

“That’s not what I asked.” 

“Then no; I’m not a nurse.”

She turned to him and took his hand in hers. The frail old man looked nervously at the beautiful woman beside him, the dawning of realisation showing in his fading eyes. 

“I-is it really y-you?”

“None other!” 

“Why?”

“Why not? Why shouldn’t I come and see the love of my life, the man that made me so happy?” 

Tears started to fall from his eyes and suddenly he could see what he couldn’t see before. His shaking hand gripped hers and slowly but surely, he began to shake his head and smile. She returned that smile and they embraced, him sobbing on her shoulder.

“Don’t cry my sweet,” she said soothingly. “Are you ready?” 

“I-I think so.”

She stood and led him away towards the pond.

 

*        *        *

 

Matron was back in her office when the alarm was raised. She got up and nearly ran to the office. 

“What’s happened?” she demanded.

Sat in the office, was one of the student nurses. 

“It’s that blasted Jack Spratt again isn’t it?” The nurse nodded.

“What has he said this time?” 

“Nothing Matron.”

“So what’s wrong?” 

“He’s not there.”

“Not there? Don’t be silly girl. Where else can he be?” 

“I don’t know Matron, but he’s not in his room.”

Nurses were dispatched to each of the floors and they searched every room, cupboard and stairway, but to no avail. 

As the reports came back, Matron was at a loss to understand what had happened. She ordered the nurses top go look again.

“He can’t have just disappeared,” she said. 

She needed some air. This was going to take some explaining; how an eighty-something year old man should disappear from a locked room, leaving no trace, without being able to stand, let alone leg it.

She went outside into the garden and looked across to the pond. It was so peaceful here and somehow, looking at the scenery was enough to relax her - just what she needed as before she came out, she was feeling very tense indeed. 

Something caught her eye.

She looked more closely and saw the sunlight reflecting off of something by the seat near the pond. She walked over, curious to know what it was and the nearer she got, the quicker she moved until with no more than twenty yards between her and her quarry, she was at a dead run. She could see the still figure sat on the bench and knew in her heart that it was Mr. Spratt.

 

*        *        *

 

The ambulance was there in no more than a few minutes, but for the life of her, she didn’t know what to say as to how he came to be there, never mind how he managed to get down from the third floor unaided, being missed by all the cameras and even more peculiar, how he got into the garden. 

One thing she did know was there was a strangely strong smell of lavender about him and a tear stain was evident, but on his old, thin lips was a smile.

 


Grateful acknowledgement to Gabi for her help in editing this piece


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