`The sea! Fine I know the sea'
TO begin with Gourlay was for me a mere name on a list. He belonged to the vast body of the lonely who, during a long stay in hospital, have neither family nor friends to visit them. My name was on another list -- one of volunteer visitors. We were allotted to each other. One bleak afternoon in autumn, with russet leaves fluttering down and a thick yellow fog blotting out the landscape, I traveled from the country into town, to the hospital where Andrew Gourlay was a patient. When I thought of this visit, I imagined an elderly, kindly man, eager for company. The hospital, a bleak building with crumbling woodwork and a smell of decay about it, gives me my first tremor of apprehension. What if the unknown Gourlay is not in the least like this imagined patient?Skip to next paragraph
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As I walk down the long room I grow more nervous. Family groups are gathered round each bed; at the far end of the ward, sitting bolt upright, is a man with grizzled hair, staring into space. ``You may find Mr. Gourlay a little withdrawn,'' the sister warns me. How do I introduce myself? I hear you've no family left to come to you? ``Here's a visitor for you,'' a nurse says to him. ``He's not been very well lately,'' she adds.
``I'm no' deid yet,'' Gourlay retorts grimly. He glances up at me, standing there with a bottle of orange squash and magazines. What's brought you here? he seems to ask. Charity? Indeed, what has brought me? Is it an impertinence to seek contact with the less fortunate in life? What is one's motive? Salving an uneasy conscience?
An uncomfortable silence follows this inauspicious introduction. What can I tell him? He lies there, in gray hospital pajamas, his gray hair brushed back, his dark eye fixed on me with a glower. Where is my old gentleman happy to have a visitor at his bedside? Here, rather, is a sparring partner who topples, like a pawn in chess, every remark I advance. If only we could communicate, exchange some sort of greeting out of our common humanity across the void between us.
My small talk dries up. He closes his eyes. Has he fallen asleep, refusing all contact? Without waking him I shall creep away and tell the sister I have failed, that I am not cut out for hospital visiting. He starts up. ``Goodbye, Mr. Gourlay, I hope you'll soon be better,'' I say. ``Better!'' he exclaims caustically. ``Breaking up like an old ship. More like a hulk in the scrapyard.'' An old ship. ``Have you ever been to sea?'' I ask him on a sudden impulse.
Outside the window lies the gray street and beyond the docks where once great ships were built, sailed down the river, and out to sea. ``The sea! Fine I know the sea!'' He lingers on that last word. I have touched on a secret resort, turned a key that has opened a door. It would be too much to say that his face lights up, but it brightens. ``I went to sea as a lad,'' he said. ``Conditions in the city were bad in the '30s -- I had to escape. I had to get to sea.'' Then he shuts up, tight as a clam. I am not going to hear any more this time.
``Will I come back next week?'' I ask. ``That's up to you. If you do come,'' he adds, ``don't bring any of that stuff,'' pointing at the magazines and orange squash. ``I don't like to be beholden.''
``When you were a boy, did you dream of going to sea?'' I drop, tentatively, on my next visit. ``Dream! I did nothing but!'' he exclaims. ``I'd like to hear about it -- if you can be bothered telling me,'' I add, humbly. He glares at the visitors clustering around other beds, then sighs. He wants to talk and has no listener but me. Can he trust me? The need to recall is stronger than his reluctance and little by little, out it comes.