What hath night to do with sleep?
John Milton, 1667.
Even with the windscreen wipers set at full, they struggled to cope with the deluge of rain that had suddenly appeared from out of nowhere.
Sat hunched in the drivers set, squinting through the windscreen, Chris Allan cursed. He was lost, nervous and afraid.
His fingers gripped the steering wheel tight as he manoeuvred in low gears through the country lanes of remote Northumberland. Each road and turn looked identical to the last. He had never experienced such vastness and total isolation from the real world.
The rain picked up, and Chris prayed that he would not encounter any oncoming traffic; the roads were barely wide enough for one car alone, hemmed in tightly by mile upon mile of stone wall. In his tinny Renault Clio, he knew who would come off worse in a collision. His French-built car would be no match for a wall dating back centuries, which had witnessed many a bloody battle and had been exposed to the most extreme conditions known to man. The walls still stood strong, looking as though they had only been constructed the day before.
It had been at least thirty years since he had ventured this far up north, having moved to London once his university studies had been completed. He visited Newcastle regular, staying with his parents and that had been how he had kept in touch with his ageing Grandma who was often a visitor to their home.
He felt a tear on his cheek at the thought of his Grandma. He loved her dearly; she had been a big part of his life when he had been growing up. He had often stayed at her bungalow and was more than content to allow her to pamper him with an ample supply of sweeties and crisps, staying up well after his normal bedtime to watch trashy TV together well into the early morning had been the icing on the cake for him.
He had not seen her since her stroke, ashamedly using the old ‘I’m too busy at work excuse,’ to stay away. He had promised himself he would visit, but for one reason or another, he kept putting it back. There was always next week he would tell himself.
Now he had no option but to visit. His Grandmother had been moved out into the countryside to recover, and his parents had gone to Spain for a two week holiday. His mother had told him in no certain terms what would happen to him if he did pop in to see how she was settling in.
Bloody government cuts he thought, surely there was a place available somewhere closer to home.
Chris nearly missed the entrance to Back Beck House. If the weather had not forced him to slow down, he would have easily driven past the stone entrance. He turned into a meandering driveway and allowed his heart to slow down, safe in the knowledge that he had at least found the place.
Built in 1868, Back Beck House had originally been a vicarage. A grand, stone building with two wings it had later been converted to a convalescence home in the mid-eighties specialising in dementia care and stroke recovery. In its entire splendour, it stood out triumphantly against the bleak rural landscape, located four miles northeast of Rothbury Community Hospital on the edge of a tiny village called Snitter.
He eased the car into a second opening, set further back from the original entrance, flanked with huge Oak trees on either side and the tarmac driveway took him past immaculate lawns and manicured hedges that were hidden from the passing eye.
He stopped the car under a sprawling Willow tree and left the engine running. The rain stopped unexpectedly, but the skies above still remained dark and menacing. Chris turned off his wipers and stared into space, the occasional thud of rainwater as it dripped from the overhanging branches of the Elm tree was the only noise to be heard.
Chris still gripped the steering wheel with both hands. He was unable to move. His stomach slowly churned.
Did he really want to witness the grandmother he adored, all twisted and torn following her stroke? He was unsure how he would handle his emotions; if he broke down in front of her, he did not want her getting upset. Perhaps it would be best if he just turned around, told his parents want they wanted to hear and remember her as she was. Maybe she wouldn’t even recognise him at all.
A common black raven cawed harshly from the rooftop of Back Beck House shattering the silence in a heartbeat, shocking Chris back to reality.
He looked up to where it was perched and shuddered. The raven stared Chris directly in the eyes, almost mockingly, its talon-like claws digging into the lead of the roof and its curvaceous beak looked capable of devouring a small child. Its black eyes glinted magically; the black raven called out one last time before it soared from the roof with a swift flap of its wing’s.
It hovered above Chris’s head momentarily before turning away, heading upwards into the darkening sky.
The gravel crunched under his feet as Chris made his way to the entrance. He glanced one last time upwards, but the raven had disappeared.
There was a single worn and miss-shaped stone step leading to a wooden door that was in desperate need of a lick of paint. Thick slivers of white peeled away from the solid surface revealing the original wood. Pushing the door gently at first, it slowly eased open before coming to a halt after a few inches with a loud croak. Chris gave it a further push and apprehensively stepped inside.
This was it; there was no turning back now.
He closed the ageing door behind him and stood at the entrance; adjusting his coat as he wiped his damp shoes on an ancient welcome mat that was threadbare through years of traffic. Looking up, he glanced down the corridor in front of him. It was carpeted, with doors to rooms running down either side like an ageing Travelodge.
At the end of the corridor an old man appeared from one of the rooms, dressed in pyjamas that hung limply from his body, he was pushing a Zimmer frame in front of him and dragging his slippered feet along the floor. He stopped halfway across and turned to look at Chris. His eyes lit up, and he went to speak, but all that emitted from fragile lips was a babble of baby words and a mouthful of saliva that dribbled onto his stubbled chin. The old man shook his head and disappeared into another room, leaving Chris alone.
Taking a deep breath, Chris made his way down the corridor. There was an eerie silence, and Chris was beginning to think the place was deserted when a door to his right marked ‘Nurses Office’ opened, and a steel trolley was wheeled out, nearly catching his foot.
He jumped as an elderly nurse in a maroon cardigan apologised and halted the medicine trolley she was pushing.
‘Oh.’ She exclaimed, ‘Excuse me, I never saw you there, too busy thinking of other things, are you ok?’
‘I’m fine; I was beginning to think there was nobody here.’
The woman relaxed and smiled ‘its medicine time, everyone is in their rooms relaxing before dinner.’
Chris offered his hand which she grasped lightly; her hand was boney thin, littered with liver spots and cold to the touch.
‘I’m Chris Allen; I’m here to see my Grandma, Agnes Allen.’
The nurse stood back, appraising him slowly.
‘I’m Sister Grey, I’m in charge here. We have some staff off today, so I am helping out as best as I can. Not as easy as when I was thirty years younger, it takes a little while longer, but it makes me feel useful.’
There was a short pause as Sister Gray continued to observe Chris, who stood embarrassed in front of her.
‘Well Chris Allen, I have heard a lot about you, it will make Agnes’s day when she sees you.’
‘How has she been?’ Chris enquired ‘Is she doing ok after her……stroke?’
‘As well as can be expected considering her age. She is comfortable, but her body is still fighting. It may take some time for her to fully recover.’
‘She is in room 10 if you want to go in. Don’t knock in case she is sleeping.’
‘Thank you. I won’t.’
Ten paces ahead, Chris found himself standing outside room number 10.
He had just placed his hand on the door handle when Sister Agnes passed him with the medicine trolley in front of her.
‘One last thing Chris before you go in,’ she called out gently.
‘Agnes is on a lot of medication right now. Don’t believe everything she tells you.’
Sister Allen held Chris’s stare for a split second more with rugged eyes, then her smile returned, and she continued on her way.
Chris tentatively pushed open the door of his grandma’s room. A thick foist hit the back of his throat, causing him to pause in the doorway. Noticing that his grandmother was sleeping peacefully in her bed, he strode to the window, to open the window upwards as far as it would go hoping to blow away the decay. Old and warped with decades of paint slapped on, he struggled to budge the single frame upwards. It stuck fast at about twelve inches, and he bent low to gulp at the incoming fresh air.
After a few moments, when he was sure that he had removed the worst, he closed the window again, fearing his frail grandmother might easily catch a cold.
For the first time, he looked down at her properly, and his heart sank. Her skin was gaunt and lifeless, clinging to the bones on her face. Colourless, she almost looked unrecognisable. Her once shiny hair was greasy, unceremoniously swept back over her face, sweaty and matted.
Chris moved the single wooden visitor’s chair close to her bedside, sat down and watched her sleeping. Her breathing was slow and raspy; he panicked every time she exhaled unsure of whether it would be her last breath.
He was heartbroken, she did not look good he thought, but he had made the right decision after all.
Ten minutes went passed before she opened her eyes, during which time Chris sat silently stroking the back of her hand that he held gently.
She blinked twice, clearing her vision, and then gazed upon Chris. She blinked twice more, certain she was dreaming, then allowed her head to fall softly back into her pillow as a huge smile appeared on her face. Tears welled up in her eyes.
‘Oh, Chris, I knew you would come. I’m so happy to see you.’
He bent forward and lovingly cradled his Grandma in his arms, pulling her warm head into the crook of his neck.
Breathing in her smell, the repulsive smell of the room instantly vanished, replaced instead by fond childhood smells and memories that came flooding back. The coal fire blazing away in the living room as wet coal crackled and snapped onto the hearth, the chip pan cooking away and the mouthwatering smell of fried spam sifting through from the tiny kitchen on a Saturday night.
They made small talk for a while, his Grandma wanted to know everything he had been up to and hung onto his every word with a look of pride etched on her face.
He broached the subject of her health and her stay at Back Beck House and could not fail to notice the instant change in her appearance. Her eyes became heavy, darting nervously around the room.
‘What’s up?’ Enquired Chris eager to know what was worrying her ‘Is it something I’ve said?’
She looked into his eyes and her face aged. She grabbed hold of his hand tightly, and Chris could feel them shaking as her nails bit into his grip.
‘Chris,’ she whispered ‘I can’t stay here. They are trying to kill me.’
Leaning in closer to hear her clearer, Chris asked ‘What do you mean? Who is trying to kill you?’
‘Everyone. They come at night when I’m sleeping and tell me it’s my time and that they are going to kill me soon.’
Confused, but not too concerned Chris probed further, confident that it was the ramblings of a medicated old woman.
‘Now come on Grandma, who would want to kill you. You need to forget all of that nonsense and relax, or you will never be back on your feet.’
In annoyance, his Grandma dug her nails deeper into his skin, causing Chris too hastily retract his hand.
‘I knew you wouldn’t believe me, nobody believes me. I may be old, but I still have all my marbles.’
‘I understand what you are saying Grandma, but trust me, you will be fine. I’m here now to protect you.’
His Grandma merely shrugged, and after a brief uncomfortable silence, they continued talking about everything and anything. However, the mood had changed between them, and a dark cloud lingered over the room.
There was a knock at the door, and Sister Grey poked her head in the room.
‘Sorry to interrupt Agnes. Just to let you know its dinner time in ten minutes. Your Grandson is more than welcome to stay.’
Chris spoke up, pleased at the opportunity to escape.
‘Its fine thanks. I need to set off what with the bad weather. I’ll let you all enjoy your meal in peace.’
Sister Grey retreated from the room, and Chris prepared to leave for the day.
‘I’ve loved seeing you Grandma. Don’t worry, I will be back to see you soon.’
She was silent as he zipped up his jacket and bent down to kiss her on the cheek.
He paused at the doorway to look at her once again, and she looked at him pleadingly.
‘I love you Chris. Please hurry back. I don’t want them to take me just yet.’
Chris nodded and left the room with a lump in his throat.
Chris was shaken as he left the room, saddened by the state of his beloved Grandma. With his head buzzing he left Back Beck House without a word.
He manoeuvred his car out of the confined car park, from her viewpoint, stood slightly back from the expansive lounge bay window that overlooked the frontage; Sister Grey watched his departure with steely eyes.
Her hands were tightly clasped together in front of her as she ran her rosary beads through her bony and wrinkled fingertips.
Reaching the end of the drive, Chris drove out of view. Sister Gray remained where she was deep in thought.
With an impassive face, she closed her eyes for a few seconds, made the sign of the cross and left the room with her rosary beads still tightly clutched.
Chris made the long journey back to Back Beck House the following day. It was late, close to their mealtime and the autumn night was closing in. He had deliberated all day on what he should do. He’d had an uncomfortable night thinking over everything that his Grandma had said.
Tired, it had remained embedded in his head throughout the morning, and by lunchtime, his mind was made up. He had heard the loneliness and despair in her voice, the fear had been visible on her face for him to see the belief in her eyes.
Of course, it was the medication, it had to be, there was no other plausible explanation. Yes, she was lonely which was understandable, but she had pleaded to his good nature, and now he was duty-bound to make sure she was comfortable and relaxed in what could well be her final moments on earth.
The thought of her dying in such a state convinced him he was making the right decision. It was going to be a hard time, that was for certain, but he owed it the old woman who had done nothing except offer him kindness and love throughout his entire life.
For some reason, he felt uneasy about sharing his Grandma’s fears with Sister Grey. He parked off the main road and cautiously approached Back Beck House under the shadows of the trees.
Letting himself in the main door, he was pleased to see that the corridor was empty and he could hear the babble of chatter from the dining room as the patients ate their dinner together.
He slipped into room 10 and sat in the bedside chair, unable to explain what he was doing or what he hoped to achieve.
Deep in thought, he nearly jumped out of his skin as the door to the bedroom opened. He leapt from his seat but let out a huge sigh of relief as his Grandma shuffled in alone. Her face lit up as soon as she saw him and he had to put a finger to his lips to stop her from screaming out in excitement.
She looked very weak, more so than the previous day and he assisted her to bed. Only when she was firmly tucked in a comfortable did she speak.
‘Chris, I knew you would never let me down. You have made me so happy to be by my side.’
Chris felt his heart go out to the old woman and felt shame for not visiting before.
‘I thought I’d stay tonight and keep you company, we can watch TV together just like old times.’
Tears rolled down his Grandma’s tight face, and she nodded her head softly in agreement.
While she was still fresh, he pulled up his chair close to her bed, and for an hour they played pontoon from an old pack of cards he had brought. They laughed together as they both tried to cheat the other.
Soon he noticed she was becoming drowsy, so he popped on the TV, and they watched a cookery programme together, holding each other’s hand in silence. He was just thinking about getting comfortable for the night when he heard the medicine trolley approach, halt, and enter the room next door.
He quickly darted into the bathroom and hid behind the shower curtain. Holding his breath, he heard Sister Grey enter the room and ask his Grandma how she was feeling. He was unable to hear her muffled reply and was relieved when he heard the trolley leave the room and the door close a few minutes later.
He found a spare blanket in the wardrobe and lay on the chair, fidgeting around until he located a comfortable spot. He wished his Grandma goodnight, kissed her on the cheek and turned the TV off.
He remained in the chair, staring at his Grandma, relaxed in how comfortable she now looked.
Chris jolted awake in his chair. He must have dossed off. The room was icy cold, and he watched his condensed breath forming in the still air. Glancing across to his Grandmother, he observed that she was sleeping peacefully.
The door to her bathroom slowly eased open, the stiff joints creaking in the silence. Chris watched mesmerised as a slow wisp of thin fog rose out from the toilet. It hovered above the bowl momentarily then crept out further, down onto the bathroom floor; soon it was entwined around the entire toilet. It continued to escape and moved onwards, ever-growing, floating just above the bathroom floor. Tentatively it snaked forward into the bedroom, searching.
The fog traced the wall of the room and made it’s way deeper into the room. Chris was frozen to the spot, his eyes unable to blink. As the fog reached the doorway, it finally stopped.
Chris had been holding his breath all of that time and let out a huge sigh of relief.
Suddenly the door handled turned as someone, or something tried to open it. Luckily the door was locked from the inside. The handle turned again and again, but no entry could be made. With more force, the handle was repeatedly turned and whatever was outside made a concerted effort to open the door. They became frantic, and the noise reverberated through the room, shaking the aged walls to their foundations. Finally, it stopped, and there was silence in the room once more.
Chris gazed upon two large pictures hanging from the wall. One was of a Northumbrian winter scene, and the second was an old painting of Holy Island. Without warning, both pictures crashed violently to the floor where their antique frames instantly smashed into pieces.
Chris was on his feet now, panicking with no idea what to do.
His Grandmother had been correct. She had given him plenty of warning.
A low cackle of laughter erupted from her bed. Chris turned and saw his Grandmother sitting up. Her body shook as she laughed and the cackle became louder and louder, soon she was emitting a high pitched hysterical laugh that was sure to wake everyone in Back Beck House.
Chris had no idea what to do. He wanted to cry out for help, but the words froze on his lips.
The fog made its ways towards the other side of the bed to where Chris was standing as white as a sheet.
He watched as the fog reached his feet and sniffed him out, His grandmother was still hysterically laughing, and in the total madness, his brain struggled to absorb anything that was going on.
Slowly the fog began to wrap itself around his legs and rise upwards, encapsulating his whole body in a fine grey web.
Finally, Chris screamed.
Chris opened his eyes, he was breathing sharply, and a thin layer of sweat had formed on his forehead. The bedroom was exactly as it had been before he had fallen asleep and the new morning was stirring. The sun was shining brightly through the plain curtains, and the room was starting to warm up.
Taking a deep breath, he laughed out aloud and berated himself for being a wimp.
He stood up from the chair and stretched both arms out as he let out a deep yawn. Apart from a slight ache in his back, he had slept quite comfortable.
He walked to the toilet to relieve himself and laughed again as he noticed the door was shut, why shouldn’t it be, he thought. A quick splash of cold water onto his face and he was feeling as right as rain once more.
Chris walked back into the bedroom and stopped dead. His newfound energy seeped from his body in an instant, and his shoulders drooped.
His Grandmother was still in bed. She looked peaceful enough, but there was no rising and falling of her chest. Her skin was whiter than white and her lips were fixed, already showing faint tinges of blue.
Steadying himself, Chris made his way slowly to the bed. He touched her forehead and hastily withdrew his hand. Her skin was freezing to the touch.
To confirm her passing, he leant in close to her body and listened out for the faintest of breaths or the smallest of movements.
There was nothing.
Chris let his head fall gently onto her chest and allowed the build of tears he had been fighting back to run free.
Buried into his Grandmothers body, he failed to notice her eyes dart open, bright and powerful. From this position, he also failed to notice her hand drop free from under the bedcovers gripping a pair of surgical scissors.
He was blissfully unaware of the grave danger he was in until the scissors were forcibly driven into his neck
The sharpened scissors pierced through the skin and penetrated deep into his jugular. He felt an instant burning pain and became aware of warm blood flowing into his mouth and running down his throat.
He managed to lift up from his position. Upright he looked at his Grandma with a look of utter confusion on his face.
‘Why?” Was all he managed to utter as he started to drown on his own blood, it thickened in his mouth and trickled past his lips.
His Grandmother never moved, she kept her cold eyes fixed on him throughout the entire duration. Shockingly she erupted into a laughing fit that shook her entire body.
Chris pulled the scissors from his neck and winced as blood jetted out from the wound, spraying onto the walls of the room.
He felt his body go cold. First in his fingers and toes then the chill rapidly moved up his torso draining away all of his energy.
Glancing towards the bathroom, he saw the thin mist appear, coming quicker this time, eager to be there for the kill.
He fell to the floor and struggled to keep his eyes open. His Grandmother was still madly laughing, and the mist was advancing towards him with a passion.
Everything started closing in on him; his Grandmother’s laughter seemed further away. As the mist circled his body, he closed his eyes for the final time.
The mist in the room slowly dispersed. Grandma hauled herself upright in her bed, ignoring the pain that racked her body.
A sly smile slowly appeared on her wizened face, and the light in her eyes shone brightly once more.
Perched on the windowsill of her bedroom was the black raven who had spoken to her during the dark, lonely nights, promising and teasing her with tales of eternal happiness waiting for her in heaven.
The raven was studying her closely, its head bobbing slightly in satisfaction.
With awe in her voice, she spoke out, calmly and clearly.
‘I have down what you asked. Can you take me now?’
Craig Wrightson 2019